Ohio State's victory over Michigan may quieted the panic attack that many Buckeye fans, and maybe a few Buckeye writers, were having over their season. Despite finally grabbing a quality win to put on their resume to pair with that...uh...Albany victory, I guess, Ohio State's season success is by no means assured. If Ohio State wants to be a player in the Big Ten title face, and assure themselves of a top seed for the tournament, they are going to have to win a few tough games on the road against good basketball teams. Ohio State will get another chance this Saturday when they take on Tom Izzo's 18th ranked Michigan State Spartans.
Stop me if you're heard this Michigan State story before: A Spartan squad, lacking somewhat in household name star power (at least relative to the heights of Izzo's tenure), stumbles a little in the early season, say, by losing to Connecticut and Miami. After getting a signature win (over Kansas), Michigan State looks eminently mortal, either in defeat (a 13 point loss to Minnesota), or in victory (a somewhat lucky win over Iowa, a 10 point win over Nebraska that was tied at halftime, a single digit win at Penn State). These performances lead to whispers that perhaps this is a bit of a rebuilding year for Michigan State, and maybe they won't amount to much this year.
This is the Tom Izzo rope-a-dope, and I swear it happens every single year. Michigan State will lull everybody into a false sense of security, and then *bam*, they'll end up winning the Big Ten tournament and making the Elite 8 or something.
Luckily for the Buckeyes, this game is on January 19th, not March 10th, so perhaps the trademark Michigan State magic won't be in effect. Here is what the Spartans bring to the table.
Like many Big Ten teams, the Spartans are fronted by a great point guard. Junior Keith Appling leads Michigan State in scoring (13.7 ppg) and assists (4.5 per). Appling does a good job taking care of the basketball, and is a capable rebounder for somebody who is only 6-1. Appling showed some strong scoring potential at the start of the season, dropping 19 on Kansas, 22 on Boise State and 15 against Minnesota (to go with six steals), but he's in a bit of a scoring slump as of late. Appling has shot 33% or worse from the field over his last four games, and since the December 1st game against Nicholls State, he's hit exactly two three-point shots against D1 competition. Appling is a good enough passer and ballhawk to impact games when he isn't shooting well, which is important, because right now, he certainly isn't shooting well.
Appling is joined in the backcourt by highly regarded freshman Gary Harris. Often described as a player with NBA-potential, Harris has turned in fabulous performances this season, mixed with typical freshman mistakes and some injuries. He's second on the team in scoring at 12.9 ppg, but has more explosive potential than Appling, and is shooting more efficiently. Harris is great at getting to the line, and does a good job converting on those opportunities, hitting 78% of his free throws. He's a decent three-point shooter who can occasionally get dangerously hot, like he did in Michigan State's blowout of Purdue, hitting 6 bombs from downtown. Harris may not be an elite defender yet, but brings a lot to the table for Michigan State, and will need to be somebody Ohio State always accounts for on the court.
Swingman sophomore Branden Dawson adds more scoring (10.2 ppg) and rebounding (6.1) for the Spartans. He's not a three point shooter, but he's a strong defender, and can heat up if defenses let him (17 points against Iowa, 14 against Purdue). Dawson made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons, as he sat out the entire first half against Penn State after getting into an alteration with fellow forward Adreian Payne. Travis Tice (6.2 ppg) rounds out the guard rotation as a three point shooter, along with Denzel Valentine, who brings additional size (6-5) and rebounding (4.4 per game).
The 6-10 Payne leads the way down low for Michigan State, and he may be the key for the Spartans in a matchup against the Buckeyes. Payne is a capable scorer (9.1 ppg), a good rebounder (team leading 7.2), and efficient and careful with the basketball. Despite the altercation, Payne is coming off a career best 20 point game against Penn State, leading many to wonder if Dawson shouldn't try to punch Payne more often. Despite his 6-10 size though, Payne hasn't been a major shot blocking force. Ohio State has struggled somewhat against big men who can score in the paint with Duke and Kansas, and Michigan State will certainly try to get Payne going.
Payne is joined by senior 6-9 Derrick Nix, who presents a similar statistical profile. Nix also averages 9.5 ppg, and 7 rebounds. He's only blocked 2 shots on the entire season, but has been able to average about a steal per game. Nix is a decent free throw shooter for a bigger guy (69%), and has hit double figures in 4 of his last 5 games. Nix has certainly played better in the second half of the season (culminating in a masterful 25 point game against Texas) than he did at the start of the year, but is still prone to inconsistency.
Winning on the road in the Big Ten is never easy, especially when it's against a top 25 team, but Ohio State has had a little success in East Lansing. The Buckeyes are 4-2 in their last six trips to Michigan State since the 2005-2006 season, and have won their last two.
In games where Michigan State has struggled this season, they typically haven't had great offensive production from their big men, Payne and Nix. Ohio State will need big games from Thomas, Ravenel and Williams to frustrate Michigan State down low, especially since they have to be confident that they can win the defensive battle in the backcourt. This looks like it has all the makings of a classic, physical Big Ten 56-54 uglyball kind of game, and this one could certainly go either way.
Holy War. Ohio State will likely have the two best players on the court with Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, and Appling and Harris haven't had to deal with a team that can defend the backcourt as well as Ohio State. I see this turning up as an ugly, low scoring, back and forth game, and as long as Ohio State can hang around near the end, they know they have the single best scorer in the conference.
I think Ohio State pulls out a very close one near the end to set up a slightly easier part of the schedule, 60-57.