When Michigan State left Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15 after season-opening losses to North Carolina and Duke, Tom Izzo insisted he wasn't worried about how the Spartans would respond to the program's first 0-2 start since before Magic Johnson.
Six weeks later, it's clear he was right.
Michigan State beat visiting Indiana 80-65 on Wednesday night to notch its 12th straight victory, but the Spartans (12-2) had to survive one of the strangest games of the season to escape with a hard-earned victory.
First Michigan State stormed to a 34-16 lead thanks to lockdown defense and unusually efficient outside shooting. Then Indiana countered with a 25-2 run fueled by increased defensive intensity that led to easy buckets. And finally Michigan State rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit and regained the lead by parlaying improved defense and interior scoring into a 20-0 run.
Keith Appling led the Spartans with 25 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, but the most encouraging aspect of the victory for the Spartans was the play of center Derrick Nix off the bench. Nix matched his season high of 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting, sparking the Spartans with his interior scoring in the second half and showing once again that his offseason weight loss has made him far more effective.
Knocking Indiana from the ranks of the unbeaten continued Michigan State's surge since its difficult opening week of the season. The Spartans have now convincingly beaten the Hoosiers, Gonzaga and Florida State, looking far more fluid on offense and far more consistent on defense in the process.
Whereas most prognosticators suggested Wisconsin or Michigan would be the teams who could challenge Ohio State in the Big Ten, Michigan State appears capable of cracking that upper echelon at the moment. Senior Draymond Green consistently delivers scoring, rebounding and leadership, surprising freshman Travis Trice has been a stabilizing presence at point guard and Keith Appling and Brandon Wood are providing perimeter defense and backcourt scoring.
For Indiana, there was nothing embarrassing about suffering its first loss of the season at the Breslin Center, especially considering the game was far closer than the final score indicates until the last few minutes . The Hoosiers were without sixth man Will Sheehey and they got minimal scoring from sweet-shooting Jordan Hulls (4 points) or top big man Cody Zeller (4 points), yet they still tested Michigan State on the road.
The biggest reason Indiana managed to stay in it was Christian Watford, who followed up his career night against Kentucky with a 26-point effort against the Spartans. It was good enough to make him the best player on the floor Wednesday night, but it wasn't quite sufficient to lead the Hoosiers to a victory.
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Tracy McGrady to Dwight Howard: Trade to Nets might not be a good idea
• Forde: Notre Dame aims to keep Big Ten, Pac-12 rivalries | Leagues 'expand'
• The top 10 sporting villains of 2011