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Game pitting No. 1 Indiana vs. No. 4 Michigan puts the big in Big Ten

Indiana's Cody Zeller (40) goes against Michigan State's Keenan Wetzel (15) during second half an NCAA college basketball game Sunday

Indiana's Cody Zeller (40) goes against Michigan State's Keenan Wetzel (15) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana defeated Michigan State 75-70. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

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Updated: March 20, 2013 6:38AM



March Madness gets all the attention. But Frenetic February often has a lot to do with it.

Tuesday’s big showdown in East Lansing between No. 1 Indiana and No. 4 Michigan State is a good example.

‘‘It’s going to be a heck of a deal for both us and Indiana and the national coverage we’re going to get,’’ Spartans coach Tom Izzo said Monday. ‘‘We’ll be ready. They’ll be ready. And it’ll be a great game.’’

At stake: A leg up in a tough Big Ten race. IU is seeking its first league title since 2002; MSU is looking for its eighth in 16 years.

Beyond the pride involved in winning the league, the next three weeks are going to decide seeding in the Big Ten tournament, which could impact who advances there, which will affect NCAA tournament seeding. Beyond the hardware involved, success can breed more success, in the form of improved chances for a favorable bracket.

The Hoosiers and Spartans, who are both 11-2, are two games ahead of Michigan and Wisconsin (9-4) and three up on Ohio State (8-5). With five games left, that will put the IU-MSU winner in the driver’s seat.

But in a race where those five teams are 29-3 at home in Big Ten play, a lot of things can still happen.

Michigan State still has to go to Ohio State and Michigan. Besides its showdown with the Spartans, IU still makes a trip to Michigan, which has no top-five road games left. Wisconsin (at Michigan State) and Ohio State (at Indiana) each have one tough road trip left.

In that context, this clash between the Spartans and Hoosiers (6 p.m., ESPN) deserves all the hype it’s getting. It’s also a good bet to produce a game worthy of the hype.

Although Michigan State has been the Big Ten gold standard since the late 90s, a bigger spotlight has been on resurgent powers Indiana and Michigan this season. They have rarely been out of the top five all season; MSU only cracked the top 10 for the first time last week.

‘‘[The Hoosiers] have been the premier team in this league the whole season,’’ Izzo said. ‘‘What do they have that the rest of us don’t have? Some key veterans. A stud inside. Tremendous depth. And some of those guys have been through terrible seasons. That makes you even hungrier.’’

The Spartans have been under the radar of some media and fans. Not Crean.

‘‘I’m a little different. I think they’re good all the time,’’ Crean said. ‘‘To say, ‘Wow, they’re doing such a great job [now]’ would discredit what they’ve done in November, December and even January. They have balance with inside-outside scoring. They defend at a high level, rebound at a high level. That didn’t start happening two weeks ago. That’s been happening for some time.’’

And while the Spartans received a big boost from routing despised arch-rival Michigan, the IU-MSU rivalry is more of a mixed bag because Crean got his start as an Izzo assistant.

Before the season, Izzo said that relationship makes these games difficult.

‘‘Hell, yeah,’’ he said. ‘‘I look at him as a guy who helped me build my program, not as an assistant. The respect I have for him is much deeper than a game or two. It’s always hard to play your friends. But that’s just the way it is. It’s the nature of the beast.’’

For a couple of hours on Tuesday, that friendship will be parked.



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