The No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (18-5, 12-5) are looking to bounce back from a tough loss against third-ranked Michigan Sunday - a game which effectively wrenched control of the regular season Big Ten title away from Ohio State. With the loss, the Buckeyes fall 1.5 games behind Michigan in the Big Ten standings, and a shot at a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament becomes somewhat less certain.
But the Buckeyes will have to have a short memory, because they have to jump back in tonight on the road against Michigan State (12-9, 6-9). While the odds would seem to be in Ohio State’s favor, the Spartans are motivated to play as they’re just on the edge of the NCAA Tournament conversation. The Buckeyes can’t sleep on Michigan State, even after a heartbreaking loss to one of the best teams in the country Sunday.
Ohio State may have played one of its best games of the season against rival Michigan (in the first ever matchup of the pair as top-five opponents), but even 53% field goal shooting for the Buckeyes wasn’t enough to overcome an extremely evenly-matched team in the Wolverines. In a matchup more akin to a tournament game, the pair traded baskets, with Michigan dominating from behind the arc in the first half - a command that would taper after the break. Even so, Ohio State kept pace, and went to the intermission down 45-43.
The Buckeyes made adjustments in the second half, subbing senior guard C.J. Walker in for an ice cold Justin Ahrens, who was just 0-for-2 for zero points and a single rebound in 15 minutes. The second half played much like the first for the two teams, who continued to trade leads throughout the half.
In the closing minutes, however, with a series of ill-timed turnovers and fouls, Michigan began to pull away. That being said, Ohio State kept things close after falling into the biggest deficit of the day (nine points) with just 26 seconds left in the game. Even so, the Buckeyes pulled within three with three seconds left in the game (thanks, Duane Washington Jr.). However, after a forced foul and made free throws from Michigan, the game was sealed 92-87 in favor of the Wolverines.
While it’s a tough pill to swallow - especially since it’s Michigan - both teams played an extremely efficient, clean and entertaining game. The teams had a combined 16 turnovers on the day (nine for Ohio State, seven for Michigan). Both shot above 53% from the field, and connected on nearly half of their shots from range. The biggest differences came in assists, with Michigan holding a 19-11 advantage, and free throws, with the Buckeyes connecting on 92% of shots from the stripe to Michigan’s 79%. The game was so close that Ohio State didn’t even fall in the latest AP Poll released Monday, and it certainly left viewers - on both sides - hungry for a possible rematch in the Big Ten or NCAA Tournament.
Junior guard Duane Washington Jr. shot out of his mind on the way to a career game. His 30 (yes, 30) points led all scorers, and his five three-pointers came at critical times to keep the Buckeyes in the game. Sophomore forward E.J. Liddell added 23 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. Walker continued his outstanding play off the bench, pouring in 15 points on the afternoon.
Even after they get through their matchup today, the Buckeyes will still have a tough road to the end of the regular season. In fact, Ohio State is scheduled to face off against No. 11 Iowa and No. 6 Illinois to wrap up Big Ten play. This basketball season has been phenomenal for the Big Ten as a conference, and the most recent matchup with Ohio State and Michigan exemplified the high-level of play and opportunity that exists for one (or more) teams from the conference to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
But before they can start thinking about Illinois and Iowa, the Buckeyes will have to contend with Michigan State tonight. Michigan State owns the all-time series against Ohio State by a 72-58 margin. Moreover, the Spartans hold a 43-17 advantage when playing in East Lansing.
However, tonight marks Ohio State’s last road game of the season, and the Buckeyes have won six-straight outside of Value City Arena (of course, home court advantage this season isn’t what it’s been in years past).
While the Buckeyes have had a few days to kick their feet up since the matchup Sunday, the Spartans won’t have had much rest before tonight’s game, having played Illinois just this past Tuesday. However, they are riding high after defeating the fifth-ranked team in the nation 81-72 while fighting for their spot in the postseason. Yes, yet another friendly reminder that the Big Ten is sitting at the No. 3, 4 and 5 spots in the latest AP Poll.
It was an important step for Tom Izzo’s team, which is working to make its argument for an NCAA Tournament bid, and has been getting results with two-straight wins. Two wins against top-five opponents would certainly boost a lukewarm conference resume for Michigan State. That’ll certainly be a motivating factor for the Spartans, who are trying to keep their 22-year NCAA Tournament streak alive.
Against the Illini, Michigan State’s defense showed up in a way it hasn’t done consistently all season, holding a normally productive Illinois offense back to nearly 10 points below its season average. The Spartan offense, which had been somewhat anemic all season, averaging under 71 points per game, exploded to the nine-point win.
Junior forward Aaron Henry, Michigan State’s leading scorer on the season, once again led the scoring effort for Michigan State with 20 points on the night. Senior guard Joshua Langford had his first double-double of the year with 15 points and a career-high 16 rebounds against the Illini.
Tonight’s matchup marks the second time Ohio State and Michigan State have faced off this season. Then-No. 13 Ohio State handed the Spartans a 79-62 loss in Columbus Jan. 31 for their first win over Michigan State since Jan. 7, 2018. But there were certainly other factors at play. Michigan State, for instance, had been on a nearly three-week hiatus due to COVID-19, then were subsequently demolished by Rutgers before heading to Columbus still cold from the break.
The Buckeyes had the game in hand by early in the first half, and the home team led by a dozen at the break. Even while Michigan State started to pull closer late in the second, ice cold shooting kept the Spartans from getting back in the game. Tom Izzo’s team ended the game shooting just 32% from the field, including under 21% from range. Ohio State, meanwhile, connected on 45% of field goals, and made 6-of-18 three-pointers.
That being said, Liddell once again proved to be a leader for the Buckeyes, pouring in 20 points and pulling down eight rebounds. Sueing added 17 points of his own. On the Spartans’ side, senior guard Joshua Langford led his team with 14 points.
If you looked at Ohio State’s schedule even a couple weeks ago, it might be easy to overlook tonight’s matchup. After all, the Buckeyes had already dismantled the Spartans in Columbus, and when considering top-10 matchups against Michigan, Iowa and Illinois to close the season, it would be convenient to simply circle tonight’s matchup as a win and look ahead to the penultimate and final games of the year.
But Michigan State isn’t a pushover. There’s a reason the Spartans hold one of the longest tournament streaks in the NCAA. Tom Izzo doesn’t mess around when it comes to the postseason. Michigan State was ranked as high as No. 4 earlier this season, but, like many teams, has struggled in a tough Big Ten. In fact, the Spartans went undefeated in their non-conference season.
Plus, both teams have a lot to be playing for tonight - whether it’s a top seed in the NCAA Tournament (certainly not out of the question for the Buckeyes even after Sunday) or a shot at making the Big Dance at all.
Ohio State has been playing at such a high level, having won eight-straight games before falling to Michigan. And even against the Wolverines, as previously discussed, the Buckeyes played one of their best games of the season. Regardless, Chris Holtmann’s squad has to avoid falling into a two-game skid. The team still has a lot of momentum to carry through this final, challenging stretch of the regular season and on into the Big Ten Tournament.
The Buckeyes certainly have the players to do so. E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington Jr. are coming on hot at the exact right time, with the latter having a career game against the Wolverines Sunday. Washington even earned co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors for his performance against Michigan.
Of course, the Buckeyes will be without senior forward Kyle Young, who suffered a concussion against Michigan. Ohio State struggled down low against Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, who proved to be a threat the Buckeyes couldn’t contain in the post. Young had started all but one game this season, and he had five points in 33 minutes before leaving the game Sunday. On the season, Young’s been averaging nearly nine points and six rebounds per game. His absence will certainly be felt.
It won’t be a given, and it might not even be easier than the other premiere matchups Ohio State has looking ahead. Chris Holtmann’s team has to show up strong tonight to maintain its position in the Big Ten as it approaches tourney time.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 74.7%
Time: 9 p.m. ET