The non-conference slate was kind to the 14th-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team. The Buckeyes went 10-1 against out-of-conference opponents, with wins over Cincinnati, Creighton and UCLA. Not bad for a squad picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten.
That all changes now, however, as Ohio State shifts its focus to Big Ten play once again. The 20-game conference schedule is grueling, especially considering the strength of the conference top to bottom. And it doesn’t start off easy. Just like last year, the Buckeyes open the new year with a home matchup against No. 8 Michigan State at noon ET on FOX.
The Big Ten enters the weekend with seven of its 14 teams ranked in the AP Poll, including the No. 2 team in the country in Michigan. The conference has positioned itself well in out of conference play, but, looking ahead to March Madness, it’ll be a bloodbath as these teams bruise each others’ tournament resumes. And Ohio State versus Michigan State this weekend is one of the premiere matchups of Big Ten play.
Ohio State scored a 2-0 start to Big Ten play in December with wins over Illinois and Minnesota, bringing its season total up to 12-1. Most recently, the Buckeyes recorded an 82-64 victory over High Point in Columbus. In that matchup, senior point guard C.J. Jackson led all scorers with 20 points, while sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson added 17 and freshman guard Luther Muhammad 15. However, those efforts were not superfluous, as the Buckeyes needed to once again overcome a slow start and first-half deficit to overcome the Panthers.
The Buckeyes shot greater than 55 percent from the field overall—the best they have shot since Purdue Fort Wayne—and recorded 19 assists, with four apiece coming from senior guard Keyshawn Woods and junior forward Andre Wesson. Ohio State held High Point to 44 percent shooting on the day, and the Panthers turned the ball over 17 times to the Buckeyes’ 11. On the other hand, Ohio State connected on just half of its free throw attempts on the day and was outrebounded 36-27. And once again, the halves were unbalanced: Ohio State shot 13-of-30 in the first half compared to 17-of-24 in the second half.
Despite their troubles, the Buckeyes have pulled together in a surprising way, with veterans stepping up and freshmen emerging as future stars. Jackson, the most experienced player on the court for Ohio State, is averaging 13.6 points per game. Kaleb Wesson has stepped into his role as the go-to playmaker, while Muhammad and fellow first-year Duane Washington, Jr. have demonstrated their abilities on both ends of the court. Still, even with Wesson, there is no single superstar on the court the way there was with Keita Bates-Diop last season. But somehow that’s worked out for the Buckeyes.
They’ll have a tall order ahead, however, with Michigan State coming to town in their biggest test of the year thus far. Despite losing two first-round picks to the NBA last season in Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Miles Bridges, Michigan State hasn’t missed a beat. The Spartans are 12-2 on the season, with the only losses coming in their season opener to then-No. 1 Kansas and on the road against Louisville. After narrowly defeating Florida on the road in December, Michigan State has won its last four games by at least 20 points apiece. Most recently, the Spartans annihilated Northwestern 81-55 in East Lansing, even with junior guard Joshua Langford missing the game with an ankle injury. Forward Nick Ward, a junior from Gahanna, recorded 21 points—all in the first half—and seven rebounds on the day.
The Spartans shot 59 percent from the field, and connected on 5-of-12 three-point attempts while holding Northwestern to 34 percent shooting and just 3-of-18 from range. Michigan State outrebounded Northwestern 48-25, and had 28 assists to the Wildcats’ 16.
Michigan State returns a veteran squad that’s proved its worth on both sides of the ball. As a team, the Spartans bring one of the best scoring offenses in the country. They have shot north of 50 percent from the field this season (including 40.7 percent from range) while holding opponents to just 37 percent. The team’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.66, good for sixth in the nation.
Junior point guard Cassius Winston has controlled games for the Spartans this year. On the season, he’s averaged 17 points per outing. He’s also given eight assists per game to just two turnovers--one of the highest ratios in the NCAA. Winston is supported by Ward, who has been a scoring machine for the Spartans, connecting on 68 percent of his shots from the field.
Tom Izzo, who has been at the helm of Michigan State since 1995, has amassed a 584-227 overall record, He has led the Spartans to the NCAA Tournament every year since the 1997-98 season with seven Final Four appearances and one championship.
ESPN BPI: Michigan State 55.3% (as of Friday)
Ohio State is 68-57 all-time versus Michigan State, though the Buckeyes own a home record of 37-23 in the series. Last season, on Jan. 7, Ohio State defeated then-No. 1 Michigan State 80-64 at Value City Arena. It was a signature win for the Buckeyes, and the first real sign of what this Ohio State program could be under then-first year head coach Chris Holtmann. The Spartans are surely looking for revenge this season as they return to Columbus. And it’s a win they need as they enter a taxing stretch of their schedule: Five of the next seven games for Michigan State are on the road.
Michigan State may be without Langford once again, who is averaging 15 points on the season, but his absence versus Northwestern did not slow the Spartans down. Izzo has put together a complete team, even without a future first-round talent (or two) like he had last season.
Ohio State will have its hands full. But the team has put together a surprising season of its own. A win over a top-10 team, and one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten, would set the Buckeyes apart.