There was very little Ohio State did in their weekday game against Minnesota that was bad. The first half was questionable for all sides, but one can make a fair argument that that was more the fault of a very tightly officiated game that did not allow either team to get any natural rhythm on offense. But in the second half, the Buckeyes came out on fire, running and gunning their way to leads as high as 31 before settling in with a 71-45 demolishing of the Golden Gophers.
All was, at least for that evening, very right in the Buckeye world, and a team that had spent the last three weeks teetering on the edge of national relevance and conference legitimacy finally looked the part of a contender for the Big Ten crown, and a team that could be a force to be reckoned with in March.
Unless it was just for one night.
It has been a crazy year of college basketball so far, and there's no denying that. There has been a veritable carousel at the top of the rankings all year, filled with teams that have looked very good but not once with a team that has looked great. Some teams that started the year hot have fizzled (see: Minnesota). While some teams that started the year underwhelmingly have picked themselves up at just the right time.
Michigan State is one of the latter teams. After losing to Connecticut at the beginning of the year, Tom Izzo's squad rebounded by beating Kansas, only to fall to then-unranked Miami in Coral Gables. Sparty then ticked off many wins in a row, as they usually do, before losing by 13 in Minnesota. Granted, this was when Minnesota was still in the midst of a torrid start, but it was a loss that hurt the Spartans in the rankings and in the Big Ten at the time.
Since that loss on New Year's Eve to the Gophers, Michigan State has very quietly, very consistently been either #1 or #1A in the Big Ten Conference, grinding out win after win after win against everybody, save for Indiana. Included in these wins is the January 19th game against Ohio State, a game that was an ill-advised Shannon Scott three away from going to Overtime in East Lansing. Michigan State has once again found the way to be one of the nation's best college basketball programs this year. Just like every year.
Despite not being able to get over the Indiana hump, there is very little that can be considered a negative with regard to this year's iteration of the Spartans. And they are led by charismatic junior guard Keith Appling, who is having his best and most influential season in a Michigan State uniform. His scoring average is up from last year, and he's playing more crucial minutes. Appling was a key cog in beating Ohio State in January, pouring in 15 points on 6-13 shooting, adding three assists and two steals to his stat line against Ohio State. But where Appling has shown the most improvement has been behind the arc. A respectable 25% shooter last year, he's taken that average up to 32.3%.
But one Appling does not the fourth ranked Spartans make. Highly touted freshman Gary Harris is a similar player to Appling, just bigger and stronger. And probably, over the course of his career, better. Harris matches Appling at 13 ppg for the Spartans, but dwarfs his three-point shooting, averaging 43% behind the arc. The superfrosh is multi-tooled - fast, strong, great shooter, impact player. The combination of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott worked wonders against Minnesota's shooters, and might need to be called into action again this afternoon in a similar role.
Also worth mentioning is Adreian Payne, the 6-10 junior forward. Buckeye fans will vividly remember Payne's 14 point, 5 rebound performance in January that was the foundation of a balanced attack that eventually bettered Deshuan Thomas' 28 point night. Points in the paint were the only thing that kept Minnesota close in the first half in Columbus on Wednesday, and if Ohio State manages to hold Appling and Harris in check from the floor, they will have to find a way to contain Payne as well.
Ohio State is already 0-1 against Michigan State when Deshaun Thomas is the only star on the court for the Buckeyes. But if there was ever a game that was worth building on, it was the Minnesota game for sure, when Thomas was certainly the best player on the court, but the tenacious defense played on the perimeter by the likes of Craft, Scott and even Evan Ravenel (!!!) in the second half was more impressive. Where Ohio State got into trouble was when Thomas would disappear and the offense would stall. That must be avoided at all costs, because that is when Michigan State can roll past you and never look back.
The Spartans will be an angry team coming into Columbus, to be sure. Appling had an appalling night against Indiana on Tuesday, finishing with just six points on 1-8 shooting. But he did so in a game the Spartans only lost by four points, and were close to or beating the Hoosiers for almost the entire 40 minutes. The reason? Michigan State beat Indiana in the paint, 34-28, which helped alleviate Appling's off night. The Spartans need this win to stay within reach of the regular season Big Ten title, which would be Izzo's eighth in 18 years. How Appling rebounds, and how Sparty plays the game in the paint will be a large part of making that happen for the Spartans.
Holy War. Michigan State has lost to Connecticut, who is surprisingly bad, Miami, who is surprisingly good, and Indiana, who is the best team in the country. No other team has a resume as consistent as the Spartans'. Even though the Buckeyes are a 3.5 point favorite in the Schott, it takes a special kind of game to beat a team as good as Michigan State. Can the Buckeyes do it? In this crazy year of college basketball, anything can happen. Just not this afternoon. Another consistent effort all around by Michigan State, fueled by an aggressive game in the paint, will spell doom for the Buckeyes. Sparty yes, 65-58.