Penn State and Michigan State will tip off each other's Big Ten schedules when they meet in Happy Valley on Wednesday evening. To preview the game, I got in touch with our Spartan-focused contributors Tim Beck and Andy Creal.
Aaron Yorke: Who is Michigan State's MVP so far? The senior distributor Keith Appling, the devastatingly efficient big man Adreian Payne, or is it Gary Harris, who is perhaps the team's most talented player?
Tim Beck: Michigan State's MVP to this point has to be Appling. The senior point guard has stepped his game up this season. Don't get me wrong, Payne and Harris have played well too. Both should be in the running for All-Big Ten honors at season's end. Both will likely be first rounders should they choose to bolt for the NBA after this season. But, for me, it is Appling who is standing out. I have never been really high on his game until this season. My big question mark for the Spartans entering the season, much like last season, was guard play. Tom Izzo strives for a leader at the point guard spot -- a floor general. He hasn't been that, until now. His assists are up, his turnovers are down and his shooting has improved. If Appling can apply this surge into the conference season MSU could finish atop the B1G. I also believe that this is one of Izzo's least deep teams in years. They need Appling to play well and command this team, and so far he has done just that.
Andy Creal: Michigan State's MVP so far has to be Appling. Payne was arguably the best scorer game in and game out last season but it was Appling's lack of production in key games that hurt State in the big picture. This season he has been tremendously more efficient. Points, assists and shooting percentages are all up while the key from last year, turnovers, are down. He's been a huge constant for Izzo at the point and just what the Spartans have needed to get off to their great start.
AY: Outside of the big three, who is a player on MSU that Penn State fans should look out for?
TB: Outside of the big three, Penn State should look out for MSU's front court. With Matt Costello likely still out, watch out for Junior Alex Gauna and Freshman Gavin Schilling. MSU tends to go with shorter lineups with Costello out, but I have a feeling Izzo will go with bigs more in this game. I think this will be the key match-up. I see a potential advantage for the Spartans being rebounding and points in the paint -- a signature of an Izzo-led team.
AC: Travis Trice is the key to stop if you're Penn State. He is instant offense off the bench and provides a legitimate scoring threat and defensive presence to the second unit. Also, when paired in the backcourt with either Harris or Appling, he plays an excellent complementary role. When with Appling, Trice can be more of a scorer and with Harris he turns into more of a distributor. The Nittany Lion coaching staff should be very aware of the diminutive backup guard.
AY: Can you update us on the health statuses of Harris and Costello?
TB: Harris appears to be back, but maybe not 100 percent. He played well on Saturday, logging 19 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals. He will be a factor against Penn State. Costello, on the other hand, is still a question mark. He has been practicing since Thursday but did not play Saturday against New Orleans. Coming back from mononucleosis is no easy task. He wont be 100 percent for a while, and I would consider him doubtful for the opener.
AC: As of Saturday, the good news for the Spartans is that Costello is back practicing after battling mononucleosis for the past month or so. However, after sitting out the New Orleans game on Saturday, Izzo was quoted saying he was "highly questionable" for the Penn State game. Izzo is preaching patience with his sophomore center because a relapse could mean Costello is out for an extended period of time. As with Harris and the bad ankle, all signs are pointing up. After scoring 19 at Texas on December 21, Harris followed that performance up with a 19-point, 9-assist, 5-rebound, 5-steal game versus New Orleans. If his ankle isn't all the way back, you wouldn't be able to tell based off of his performance. However, ankle injuries are tough because of the increase in likelihood of a re-injury. Definitely something to monitor throughout the rest of the season.
And now for the questions that Tim and Andy had for me...
AC: What's the mood surrounding the Nittany Lions as the prepare for Big Ten play?
AY: Seeing as how I haven't been to State College in a while and how I only know a handful of other Penn State basketball fans, I'm can't offer an assessment of the entire fan base, but I can tell you that I am personally feeling optimistic. Penn State hasn't had an offense this good in a while, and I think it will be good enough to ambush some good teams between now and March. However, the defense is pretty dreadful and will likely keep NCAA Tournament dreams in check. Losing to Princeton at home after holding a 20-point lead was both alarming and sad.
TB: Who has been the MVP so far on Penn State?
AY: Tim Frazier has been Penn State's MVP without a doubt. He's scoring over 18 points per game while handing out a ridiculous 7.5 assists per game. What has really boosted the Penn State offense, though, is the fact that Frazier is shooting so much more efficiently than he has in the past. His 32.4 percentage on three-point tries is just a tick better than where he was two seasons ago, but his 53.3 percent rate on two-pointers is way better than where he's been before. Plus, Frazier's return from injury means that D.J. Newbill can play off the ball and as a result, the junior's turnovers are way down.
AC: MSU is notorious for defense and rebounding. Which Penn State big man will they look to to compete on the glass and in the paint offensively?
AY: Ross Travis is the one true "banger" that plays major minutes for the Lions. The team starts three forwards, but Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack prefer to spend their time on offense far away from the the basket. The two "stretch" forwards combine for 8.7 rebounds per game, while Travis is getting 8.4 by himself. Even though he's improved his rebounding and offense dramatically from last season, I expect Travis to have his hands full with Payne and Branden Dawson on Wednesday.
TB: MSU may have the headliners in Appling and Harris but I truly think the guard spot match-ups in this game are close to a wash. How do you think the PSU guards will match up with MSU?
AY: I agree that Frazier and Newbill are on par with Appling and Harris right now. It should be interesting to see the players go head-to-head, but I think the Spartan guards have an advantage because the Penn State interior defense isn't nearly as intimidating as that of MSU. Frazier and Newbill will likely be forced into more jump shots than they have been accustomed to taking during non-conference play. Meanwhile, Appling and Harris should have an easier time driving to the basket and drawing fouls on Jack and company.
AC: How does Penn State plan to stop Michigan State's dynamic backcourt? Will we see any zone or will they try to plan them man-to-man?
AY: I think we will see a good deal of zone, but not necessarily because of the guards. Payne is the guy that will give the Lions trouble in man-to-man, as they don't have anyone who can guard the versatile big man. I think Pat Chambers would rather force the Spartans to make jump shots than watch them beat up the PSU forwards. Penn State is very shallow in the frontcourt, so fouls are something to avoid.
TB: Is John Johnson going to be a major contributor for the Nittany Lions in this game and in conference play?
AY: I expect he will. Because he transferred from Pitt a year ago, Johnson wasn't eligible until Penn State played Mount St. Mary's on December 22. In that game, Johnson announced his presence with authority and scored 20 points in 22 minutes. Previously, the first man off the bench for PSU was Miami (OH) transfer Allen Roberts, but he was badly outplayed by Johnson against the Mountaineers. Chambers may very well stick with the hot hand and make Johnson his top sub versus MSU and beyond.
TB: Penn State at home will make this a close one. The difference in the game will be if Penn State can get on the glass and keep MSU from getting second chances. MSU likes to get out and run, so Penn State has to get back on defense. Upset alert? Seriously, this one should be a great opener to get the B1G season started off. MSU in a squeaker, 71-69.
AY: I wish I shared Tim's optimism. While Penn State should be able to score some on Michigan State, the PSU defense isn't equipped to handle the size that the Spartans present on the inside. That said, MSU did come close to laying eggs against Columbia and Portland this season, so maybe there is some hope for an upset bid. I just don't trust the Lions, though, after they surrendered so many points to Princeton and Mount St. Mary's. MSU wins 83-72.
AC: With the Spartans starting to click as a unit and as their stars getting healthier, I think the Spartans win this one. They just have too much talent and I think their defense and rebounding will overwhelm Penn State. I think the Nittany Lions will compete into the second half but in the end, Appling and the Spartans pull away 74-62.