Let's be real: Ohio State enters into the den of a burgeoning juggernaut today. Michigan State, ranked second in both the Associated Press poll and in KenPom.com's efficiency rankings (through Thursday's games), has won five straight games and nine of 10 overall, with an average margin of victory of 22.4 points over that stretch. Installed as the favorites (13/2) to win the national championship in the eyes of at least one gambling website, the Spartans (25-5, 12-5 Big Ten) lead the country in offensive efficiency, scoring margin, 3-point shooting, assists per game, and rebounding margin. Today's game also doubles as Senior Day for Michigan State, so Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, Colby Wollenman, and national player of the year candidate Denzel Valentine will be playing their final game in the Breslin Center. Given the stakes, it should come as no surprise that Ohio State is a 15-point underdog.
The Buckeyes (19-11, 11-6) are coming off a stunning 68-64 home win over free-falling Iowa on last Sunday evening, rallying late with a 12-2 run to secure their first victory after losing Jae'Sean Tate for the season on Feb. 23. The victory over Iowa provided Ohio State with its fifth win in its past six games, a pleasant development for the Buckeyes after the season could have easily spun out of control in mid-January when Thad Matta's crew dropped three road games by a combined 71 points over a four-game span.
Today's tilt is also rife with Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament implications. The Spartans can clinch the No. 2 seed for the conference gathering next week in Indianapolis with a victory. Even if Michigan State would lose to Ohio State, it is still virtually guaranteed of at least a No. 4 seed, with the prime perk of that achievement being a coveted double-bye into the quarterfinal round. As far as the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans are presently projected as a No. 2 seed, but a Big Ten Tournament championship would insert Tom Izzo's squad into serious consideration for a No. 1 seed.
Ohio State is assured of a top-seven seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and could actually rise all the way up to the No. 3 seed with a triumph over Michigan State and some (considerable) help. In regards to their NCAA Tournament aspirations, a conquest of the Spartans is a virtual must-have for the Buckeyes, as is a run to Big Ten Tournament final and some assistance from other conferences (e.g. the fewer Cinderellas, the better). A win over Michigan State today, and say, decisions over Nebraska, Purdue, and Michigan State in the conference tournament, would probably propel Ohio State into the NCAA Tournament field.
Numbers to Know
Between the two of them, Matta and Izzo have claimed 14 Big Ten regular season and tournament championships since Matta's first season at Ohio State in 2004-05. Matta owns at least a share of five regular season conference crowns and has won four Big Ten Tournaments. Over that same period, Izzo has three Big Ten regular season titles and a pair of conference tournament championships. Yeah, these two can coach a little bit.
The Spartans have really been clicking of late on offense, averaging a tick over 86 points per game over their last nine tilts. At 80.3 points per game for the season, this Michigan State outfit is on pace to be the highest scoring team in Izzo's 21 seasons as coach, averaging nearly two points per game more than the 2004-05 squad that was paced by Maurice Ager, Alan Anderson, Paul Davis, and Shannon Brown and lost in the Final Four to eventual national champion North Carolina.
On average, Ohio State has trailed by nearly seven points at halftime in its nine true road games this season, with a cumulative intermission deficit of minus-60. In three of their first four contests away from the Schottenstein Center and neutral courts, the Buckeyes entered the half down 21 points to Connecticut, 30 to Indiana, and 18 to Maryland. On the bright side, the Buckeyes have been better on the road of late, with a net halftime margin of plus-10 over their past five outings away from home.
Cast of characters
The sophomore swingman from Illinois flashed his all-round prowess in the Iowa win, tallying 19 points, six rebounds, four blocks, and two steals in 36 minutes of action. Most notably, Bates-Diop's swat of Mike Gesell preserved one of the Buckeyes' most impressive victories of the season. Though consistency remains an issue for KBD, he has taken a step forward in 2015-16, increasing his scoring from 3.8 points per game to 12.1 ppg, as well as notably bumping up his per-game rebounding (2.1 to 6.6) and block (0.6 to 1.2) totals. (Bates-Diop's per-game enhancements must be taken with a grain of salt, however; his present per-40 minute numbers do not offer much improvement from 2014-15.) Last time out against Michigan State, Bates-Diop struggled with his shot (3-for-9), but he did collect nine rebounds. Today, he will be looked upon to carry a portion of the scoring load and will play a role in defending Valentine.
The redshirt sophomore center has encountered a scoring lull over Ohio State's past three contests opposite Nebraska, Michigan State, and Iowa, accounting for just nine points (three from the foul line) on 11 shot attempts in 68 minutes. That stretch comes after Thompson notched 32 points on 20 field goal tries in 71 minutes in the Buckeyes' victories over Northwestern, Rutgers, and Michigan. In the last three games, foul trouble has been an issue for Thompson, who fouled out against Nebraska and Iowa. In spite of his difficulty putting the ball in the basket, Thompson has still rebounded well, corralling 18 boards over the Buckeyes' last three games. In any case, Ohio State needs Thompson to be active in the paint today against the nation's top rebounding team.
Forbes has been college basketball's version of Stephen Curry lately, exploding for 33 points and a Big Ten-record 11 3-pointers -- breaking Jon Diebler's co-record in the process -- at Rutgers on Wednesday night. Beginning with his 27-point outburst against Ohio State on Feb. 23, Forbes is averaging 25 points per game over his past three outings, and has made nearly 62 percent (24-of-39) of his shots over that span, including connecting on 22 of his 32 3-point tries (69 percent). For the season, nearly seven of the 10 field goal attempts Forbes puts up per game are 3-pointers, and his 3-point conversion rate of 51.5 percent is tops in the country through Thursday's games.
The national player of the year race is a two-horse endeavor between Valentine and Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield. Valentine's versatility has been on full display this season, as the 6-5 guard is on pace to become the first player to average more than 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in a season. Valentine, who has two triple-doubles to his name in 2015-16, leads the Big Ten in points, assists, and defensive rebounds (!) per game.
How to Watch
Game time: 12 p.m. ET
Radio: WBNS-FM 97.1
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