Entering into this weekend's 2013 Big Ten Tournament, given the mercurial nature of college basketball's best conference this season, you'd have been hard pressed to find much support if you'd said that with one mere first round exception, the first two days of the tournament would go "chalk". Of course, Wisconsin was a favorite in seed only, as the very same Wolverines team they rolled past behind a monster second half were actually the point spread favorites in the game that ultimately went Bucky Badger's way.
Never the less, regardless of the other action around them, the idea of Michigan State and Ohio State meeting for a third time in the 2012-2013 season hardly feels like a stretch. The first time the two teams met back in mid-to-late January, Ohio State bounced back from a heartless start to be in position to potentially win the game late. But when Shannon Scott took an ill advised, awkward desperation shot to potentially tie things with under 5 seconds to go, Michigan State would prevail, 59-56. The disproportionate scoring afflicting the Buckeyes for the better part of the season was particularly one sided in that one, as Deshaun Thomas would score 28 while no other Buckeyes would accrue greater than 6 total points. The rematch proved a different story.
In need of a big win in the worst of ways, Thad Matta's Buckeyes dug deep over a month later against the Spartans, this time in Columbus. After again trailing early, Ohio State fought back and despite having been just 1-7 against ranked opponents to that point in the season, the Bucks were able to get their revenge, 68-60. OSU's star junior point guard Aaron Craft was the unlikely hero, putting up 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting. The Buckeyes' well renowned world class defense was in full effect as well, as Michigan State's leading scorer for the day was limited to just 14.
Ohio State will have to do it all over again, but this time in the challenging confines of the neutral court United Center if they want to keep their Big Ten Tournament championship march alive and well. Though Ohio State enters this one on the heels of a decisive 71-50 win over 10th seeded Nebraska, in some ways, Michigan State might have the psychological edge, having just had to dig deep to bounce back and survive 6th seeded Iowa, 59-56. The Hawkeyes led by as many as 12 down the stretch, but gritty play (and some fortuitous calls/non-calls in their favor) down the stretch helped them (in head coach Tom Izzo's words) "steal" the game.
Both Ohio State and Michigan State have found success forcing baskets off turnovers during the course of their respective seasons, and Saturday is likely to be no exception. The team able to generate the most offense after picking the opposing team's pockets could very well be the victor. Each side will have added incentive to tap into what they do best to possibly further their NCAA tournament resumes. Going into Saturday, it appeared Ohio State's stock was up to the tune of a second or third seed, where as Michigan State was looking at roughly the same, though teetering more towards the three end of that spectrum.
It's almost impossible for Michigan State to shoot as poorly as they did Friday evening (8-for-30 from the field; just 38.6 percent). On the flip side, Ohio State can't possibly expect to keep shooting at the near 60% clip they managed against Nebraska. In a knocked down drag out war between two of the better defensive sides year in-year out, the first one to 60 may very well prove Big Ten Tournament championship game worthy.
Spartans point guard Keith Appling is playing his best basketball of the season at precisely the right time. Though many have a hard time seeing this iteration of Michigan State reaching the heights of so many of Tom Izzo's previous elite groups, their ceiling rises and falls with how far the junior from Detroit takes them. Appling's put up 19, 16, and 13 respectively in three straight Michigan State wins (including an impressive 58-43 dismissal of Wisconsin), but in order to repeat the magic, he'll have to do so against arguably the nation's best on the ball defender at the one.
The 28 points Buckeyes star Deshaun Thomas put up against Michigan State January 19th marked his second highest output of the season, but as mentioned, came in a thoroughly unevenly distributed scoring effort for Ohio State. His 14 in the rematch victory was actually the second *lowest* amount he's put up on the year, but came in the context of a far more team involved offensive end product.
Unfortunately given the wide delta of successful (and unsuccessful alike) offensive identities the Buckeyes have assumed this year, it's almost impossible to assume a simple A-B repeat of the latter formula will yield the same results. In all likelihood, given Michigan State's breadth of scoring options (Appling, Big Ten freshman of the year Gary Harris, and Dayton native Adreian Payne amongst them), the Bucks will just have to bring everything they have and just as they have all season, hope whatever emerges offensively is even remotely up to par with their defense.
Holy War. Ohio State is unlikely to start slow a third straight time against the Spartans, but it's also not built to counter punch against a team with the wealth of options as Michigan State. Of course should the same Michigan State team present Friday in Chicago return, the Buckeyes could find themselves sitting pretty. Ohio State, depending on their draw, could be a Sweet 16 team yet, but they'll have some time to think about it first. We're siding with the team the most balanced offensively and defensively and going Michigan State, 59-56.