Saddle Up is our nightly look at the hoops your TV wants you to watch. Here's Tuesday night's rundown. (In lieu of a video preview for tonight's game, which I had planned to do until a cold made me sound like Tom Waits on Saturday morning, here's an extra-beefy edition of Saddle Up).
No. 6 Purdue at No. 10 Michigan State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Kalin Lucas picked a bad time to be injured.
OK, obviously Lucas didn't decide to be injured. Obviously, he'd prefer to be on the floor at all times. But say the Ghost of Ankle Injuries Future visited Lucas in his sleep one night in October (hey, it could happen -- haven't you ever seen "A Muppet Christmas Carol"?) and told him he would have one ankle sprain this year, and that he could point to the Spartans' schedule and decide when it would be, I'm betting he wouldn't have picked this stretch of the Big Ten season.
A Lucas-less Michigan State team was forced to into an orange-colored cauldron on Saturday. Now the Spartans are staring down a crucial matchup with Big Ten rival Purdue. They're also looking at a potential three-game losing streak and a loss of their solo hold on the Big Ten's top spot.
It's not that Michigan State can't beat Purdue without Lucas, whose status will be a game-time decision. The Spartans are at home, which is always nice; heck, Indiana almost beat Purdue on the Hoosiers' home floor last week. And Michigan State showed some things without Lucas in their loss to the Illini -- namely, that they can still score, that they have decent, untapped depth and that Draymond Green is more versatile than you think. And Purdue doesn't exactly wow you with its guard play, at least not at the point guard spot, the one major hole in the Boilermakers' lineup.
But it will be tough if he's not able to play. The Spartans committed 20 turnovers at Illinois on Saturday, and it was obvious why: Kalin Lucas wasn't on the floor. Without him, the Spartans still got out in transition, but in the half court they frequently looked lost, settling on long jump shots from guards Chris Allen and Durrell Summers. When he's on the floor, Lucas gets a majority of the Spartans' possessions, and he's efficient with them. When he's not there, the Spartans are left to score by committee.
It won't help that the Boilermakers, after a three-game losing streak toward the beginning of the conference season, are beginning to hit their stride. Purdue has rattled off five straight wins -- including a win at Illinois and a tight home victory over Wisconsin -- and have looked impressive in doing so.
Purdue isn't a statistical powerhouse. Their defense is stalwart but not elite, and their offense overwhelms you with its efficiency. They're just sort of good at everything. They're smart shot selectors. They never turn the ball over. They force opponents into bad looks. They clean up their defensive boards. It's pretty simple stuff.
With or without Lucas, the Spartans have a chance to win if they force Purdue into outside shots. Again: It's simple, but true. The Boilermakers are not a good 3-point shooting team -- at 31.6 percent, they rank in the high 200's in the country in 3-point percentage -- nor is their offensive rebounding particularly impressive.
This is key. If Izzo can get his defenders to sink in a zone, make Purdue launch a few more 3s than Matt Painter would like, the Spartans should be able to turn long rebounds into transition layups. On the other hand, if Purdue is scoring in the paint, it's doubtful the Spartans will be able to hold onto the ball long enough against Purdue's frantic, turnover-inducing, man defense to stay afloat.
Bonus Saddle Up Purdue-MSU linkage!:
BoilerT at Hammer And Rails writes that after a lifetime of beating opponents in the Big Ten, tonight's game is a chance to reach out and grab some national glory. It also wouldn't hurt Purdue's tournament chances, which took a hit from those early Big Ten losses.
For a Michigan State fan's perspective, here's The Only Colors' long and hearty preview. The word "anxiety" is used quite frequently.
Lucas' status is still up in the air, and thanks to Tom Izzo's subtle obfuscation, no one seems to have a very good read on whether the star guard will play tonight.
Speaking of Izzo, he returned from Wisconsin and Illinois impressed with the fan support, and would like MSU fans to forget about the snow that is pummeling their windows and "get jacked" for tonight's game. Somehow I doubt that will be a problem. It certainly won't be an issue on my couch. Lucas or not, this game ought to be awesome.
No. 12 Tennessee at No. 24 Vanderbilt, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Sure, this matchup isn't quite as sexy as the Big Ten battle above, but it is still well worth your time.
On New Year's Day, it looked like Tennessee's hopes of a successful season were over. But look at the Vols now: 18-4 overall (with a win over Kansas to boot), 6-2 in the SEC and, barring a catastrophic collapse, a lock to make the NCAA tournament.
Meanwhile, Kevin Stallings' team has been quietly handling its SEC business. Saturday's loss at Georgia was a low point, sure, and Vandy is just barely above the tempo-free water mark, but they've shown themselves capable of handling the Volunteers before -- Vanderbilt beat Tennessee in Knoxville on Jan. 27. If that hot-shooting team shows up at Memorial Gym tonight, the Vols will have plenty to reckon with.
Everywhere else: Alabama will visit Kentucky and face the wrath of emerging monster DeMarcus Cousins ... Georgetown heads to Providence, apparently avoiding the countrywide snow fiasco, and will look to avoid a South Florida-esque letdown on the road ... The Illini head to the Kohl Center, where they're likely to find a stark departure from Saturday's jubilant festivities in Champaign ... VCU takes on George Mason; with a win, the Rams could get a share of first place in the CAA ... and two middling Big 12 teams will attempt to write their respective ships, as Texas Tech goes to Norman to face the Longhorn-killing Sooners.