What once looked like a one-team runaway in the Big Ten has turned into a five-team fight to the finish, and Michigan State’s status as frontrunner seems in jeopardy as long as Kalin Lucas is out.
Purdue would like to see the reigning conference player of the year miss at least one more game.
Lucas’ sprained ankle has him questionable for the No. 10 Spartans’ Tuesday night clash with sixth-ranked Purdue, which looks to stay in the Big Ten race with a sixth straight win by snapping a nine-game losing streak at the Breslin Center.
Michigan State (19-5, 9-2) got off to its best league start ever by winning its first nine games, but it didn’t just lose a game when it fell 67-49 last Tuesday at then-No. 16 Wisconsin - it also lost Lucas.
The junior guard suffered a sprained ankle midway through the second half that kept him out of Saturday’s visit to Champaign, and though his teammates played better, they couldn’t pull out a win without their top scorer and playmaker. Draymond Green scored 17 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, but Illinois shot 52.5 percent and forced 18 Spartan turnovers in pulling out a 78-73 win.
“To be a championship team, we can’t turn the ball over like that,” Green said. “We know that.”
Michigan State held a three-game conference lead at the end of January, but the two losses combined with winning streaks from Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue (19-3, 7-3) have all four teams within 1 1/2 games of the Spartans’ spot at the top.
Lucas’ status may well determine if Michigan State can extend its 18-game home winning streak and avoid its first three-game losing streak since a four-game slide from Jan. 27-Feb. 7, 2007. Coach Tom Izzo is still concerned how even a minor sprain might limit his quick floor leader.
“It is completely up in the air, still,” Izzo said of Lucas’ status for Tuesday. “I think he feels more like he’s going to be able to play some. … He’s getting treatments almost all day long in between classes. It’s improving.”
Purdue would love it if Lucas is unable to go. Lucas has averaged 17.8 points in four career games against the Boilermakers, his highest average against any Big Ten opponent.
He scored a game-high 21 points in a 62-51 win over Purdue on March 8, Michigan State’s ninth straight in the series in East Lansing. The Boilermakers have lost by an average of 11.1 points since their last victory at the Breslin Center, 99-96 on March 1, 1998.
Purdue, however, has reason to be confident heading into this meeting. Matt Painter’s team has won five straight since a three-game losing streak.
As usual, E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel have done the bulk of the scoring, but it’s been Johnson who has been Purdue’s best player during the winning streak. The junior forward has averaged a team-high 18.6 points in that stretch, and he had 21 to go along with nine rebounds and four blocks in a tight 78-75 win at Indiana on Thursday.
The Boilermakers are 18-0 when Johnson scores eight points or more.
“Anytime it’s a rivalry game, you definitely stay focused,” said Moore, who had 14 points but shot 5 of 16 against the Hoosiers. “We definitely weren’t looking ahead. We knew it was going to be a hostile environment. We knew it was going to be a tough game.”
Moore has scored 12 points in each of his two career visits to East Lansing while Johnson has averaged 7.0.
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