For once, it wasn't D'Angelo Russell grabbing the headlines. Senior forward Sam Thompson left Wednesday night's game against Penn State with 22 points, a season high for the man known as "Slam." It wasn't just Thompson's hops on display, either, as he went 3-5 from deep. The Buckeyes walked out as 20-point victors thanks in large part to Thompson's efforts.
Ohio State is in fine form at the moment. They've won five of the last six, blowing out Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers along the way. The most promising thing about that streak? They've shown they can win handily even without D'Angelo Russell leading the way, and without sophomore standout Marc Loving there to pick up the slack. Loving's suspension from the team is over, and he'll be returning to the floor for the upcoming contest with the Spartans.
Loving's production is nothing to sneeze at, either. The Buckeyes will need him to return to his offensive form quickly against a Michigan State defense allowing just 61 points per game. But if Loving gets going from deep, the Spartans could be in some serious trouble, as he's hitting more than half the shots he takes from behind the arc. It's been a nice change of pace to see Loving creating his own shot and still knocking them down from distance, especially given the closing-your-eyes-and-punching-the-gas-on-the-highway feel of the Buckeye offense at times in the past few years (hey, Deshaun Thomas).
Michigan State's season, on the other hand, tells a much different story. The Spartans looked like one of the best teams in the country last year, holding the No. 1 national ranking for a three-week stretch en route to an Elite Eight berth. Michigan State lost to eventual champion UConn in that game, but it was hard to be disappointed with how consistently strong the team was from start to finish. Now? The Spartans are lacking the kind of firepower and veteran presence that they've displayed the last several seasons. A telling statistic: MSU has already lost eight games, a mark they didn't hit until March in either of the last two seasons.
A Spartan win would certainly be a résumé-builder for Tom Izzo's team, given how hot the Buckeyes have been of late. A recent stumble against Purdue notwithstanding, Ohio State looks like the second-best team in the Big Ten behind clear favorite Wisconsin. A loss, on the other hand, could be a harbinger of serious disappointment for fans of the green and white come March.
Numbers to know:
Tom Izzo's current squad may not be as fearsome as in recent years, but one thing they still do well is cleaning up the glass. The Spartans come into Saturday's game ranked No. 9 in the country in rebounding, pulling down more than 27 per game on defense. Led by 6'6 senior Branden Dawson, who averages almost 10 boards per game on both ends of the floor, Michigan State creates plenty of opportunities by getting aggressive off of opponents' missed shots.
With the recent struggles of Ohio State's big men (see: keeping Purdue center A.J. Hammons out of commission), this could be one area in which Sparty gains an upper hand against the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes are far less productive on the defensive glass than MSU, ranking 78th in the nation in that category.
That's not to say that the Buckeyes are without advantages in this contest. Thad Matta's squad is shooting a ridiculous 50.1% from the floor, good for fourth in the country. Marc Loving is a big reason why the team has been so efficient on offense this season, shooting 49.1%, and having him back in the fold should give the Buckeyes a big offensive boost.
The Spartans, meanwhile, are the 40th-best shooting team in the country, hitting their field goals at a 47.0% clip. Their leading scorer is Denzel Valentine, who averages 14.4 PPG on 43.6% shooting. Advantage: Buckeyes. D'Angelo Russell, Valentine's counterpart, is putting up almost 20 per game on 47.2% shooting.
Freshman forward Jae'Sean Tate has hit the 20-point mark twice this season: first in a convincing January win against a then-ranked Indiana team, and again in the Buckeyes' dismantling of Rutgers a week ago. Ohio State is at its most exciting when D'Angelo Russell is playing hero ball and putting the whole team on his back, but the team is at its most dangerous when the role players are knocking down shots to match Russell's. We've seen it so far this year from Tate, from Sam Thompson, and from Marc Loving, and it's those games more than anything that show flashes of Ohio State's potential to make a deep tournament run next month. The Buckeyes can probably dispatch the Spartans on the back of Russell, but their ability to rely on multiple big-game guys down the stretch will tell a lot more about just how far the team can go this season.
Cast of characters:
Russell has spent the last few weeks making his claim for the Freshman of the Year title (and maybe even the Wooden Award) with a string of terrific performances in conference play. Russell flirted with a triple-double for three straight games before finally hitting that mark, and he's showing no signs of slowing down. The 6'5 guard has a smooth, complete game that makes him seem older than his 18 years. Russell's supporting cast has shown streaks of being able to help shoulder the heavy lifting, but there's a great chance that the freshman is the difference-maker in this contest.
If there's one thing we've learned from Ohio State's big men this year, it's that we don't need them to be good -- just good enough. But the big question is whether or not the tandem of Williams and Trey McDonald will give Thad Matta even that on a game-to-game basis. Without the services of PF Anthony Lee in the Penn State game, the Buckeyes had to move away from the small-ball approach that had put them on such a hot streak. Williams and McDonald combined for 9 points, 6 fouls, and 3 blocks, which was enough to handle a middling Nittany Lions team. But they'll need to be better than that (Williams in particular, as he's ostensibly the starter) moving forward. Williams isn't as bad as Buckeye Twitter makes him out to be, but he'll need to finish the regular season strong if he wants to shed his lackluster reputation.
Dawson is a phenomenal role player who can score and rebound with equal prowess. He's mopped up the boards for Tom Izzo all season switching between guard and small forward roles, pulling in just shy of 10 rebounds a game and scoring 11.8 points. The senior plays 30 minutes a night, and his balance of skills could give the Buckeyes a problem during this one.
Valentine will be looking to have another star-caliber performance on the day that shares his name. He leads the Spartans in scoring, and distributes the ball well -- his 4.4 assists per game rank second on the team. Fouling Valentine when he goes to the rim won't do much good, either, as he's an 84% shooter from the charity stripe. Assuming Thad Matta doesn't rely too heavily on the iffy 2-3 zone in this game, Shannon Scott and/or D'Angelo Russell will be tasked with containing Valentine.
Tip-off is scheduled for 12 p.m. ET. The game will be televised on ESPN and also broadcast on the radio at 97.1 FM.