Today’s the day, friends. The biggest day on the sports calendar. The game that we all have been counting down to for months on end. There will be parties around the country and millions upon millions will be tuned in. Even those who normally have little to no interest in sports will be watching because today is Michigan State vs. Ohio State men’s basketball day...
What? Were you thinking I was talking about something else? Well, despite the fact that the Buckeye men’s basketball team has lost 10 of their last 11 games, we here at Land-Grant Holy Land are still... excited? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So, we talked to our friend Oren Basse from The Only Colors our SB Nation sibling site that covers Spartan athletics in order to get a behind-the-scenes look at today’s opponent.
If you want more of the Sparty perspective on the game, make sure that you check out all of TOC’s coverage on their website or on Twitter @theonlycolors. In return, I also discussed the Buckeyes over on their site, so if you want to read some of my unfiltered impressions of the Buckeyes, head over here.
As they were Thursday against Northwestern, despite the fact that the Buckeyes are mired in the worst stretch the program has seen in over two decades, OSU is favored by 3.5 points this afternoon according to DraftKings SportsBook. So, take that for what it’s worth, but I guess the Schottenstein Center advantage still counts for something.
Land-Grant Holy Land: Since this is the first time that the Buckeyes have seen the Spartans this season, why don’t we start with a little crash course on the season? MSU is 15-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten. As briefly as you can, give us the need-to-know basics for the Michigan State season thus far.
The Only Colors: This team is absolutely baffling to the Spartan faithful. Admittedly, there was a lot of pessimism coming into the season, primarily due to the center position and the “failure” of Coach Izzo to bring someone in from the transfer portal. But early on, those worries were annihilated after MSU lost to Gonzaga by just 1 point and then beat Kentucky. Both those games featured some great play from starting center Mady Sissoko. Suddenly the sky was the limit for this team.
Unfortunately for us, those two November games were the peak of our season and now we are a middling Big Ten team who shape-shifts from game to game. I think at this point, most Spartan fans would tell you the team is just as likely to get bounced in the first round of the tournament (or even not make it) as they are to make a Final Four run. We have no idea what to expect from any of our players in any given game.
LGHL: The Spartans are led by a trio of veterans, Tyson Walker, Joey Hauser, and A.J. Hoggard; all essentially averaging 12-14 points per game. Then there are two players (Malik Hall and Jaden Akins) who are around nine points per game. What does this team do that allows them to be so balanced on the offensive end?
TOC: I think I would hesitate to use the word “balanced” and I say that because we aren’t getting all five of those players performing around their average in every game. Walker and Hauser could each score in the 20s or they could each score less than ten. Hoggard, Akins, and Hall could each score in the teens, or they could have a game where they only make one shot.
We have not seen a game for a while where all of them, or even four of them, play at least at their scoring average. So, to answer your question, what allows this team to be so balanced is its inability for the whole squad to play well together. It seems like if one player goes off, then another player must have an off night to keep it “balanced”.
LGHL: While the Buckeyes tend to roll with a fairly deep bench, because of their specific roster construction, MSU only had one bench player (Hall) who had over 10 minutes of playing time in Tuesday’s win over Maryland. Is that more because the core group has just risen to the top of the rotation, or is there a precipitous drop between the top six and the rest of the roster?
TOC: Aside from Malik Hall, who has been a starter for a good portion of his upperclassman seasons and who is most certainly among the very best non-starters in the nation, MSU has four other players who make up the bench, not including the garbage-time guys. Of those four, three are freshmen and the other is a sophomore. The sophomore, Pierre Brooks, was supposed to be one of our best three-point shooters but his shot has abandoned him of late, and his defense has been mostly unreliable.
Two of the freshmen play the same position, backing up Mady Sissoko at the center, and at this point neither has any positional versatility (though we did have a couple of times earlier in the season where Izzo did have them on the floor together), meaning they are competing with one another for minutes, a battle being won by Jaxon Kohler. And the last bench guy, Tre Holloman, just is not contributing enough to the box score to earn more playing time.
The one other thing I want to say to answer this is that “top six” doesn’t really describe the current rotation in anything other than minutes played. I say that as our starting center, Sissoko has very much fallen off since his early season performances. He is always the first starter pulled, often before the first commercial timeout, and he has been unable to reliably secure rebounds and catch entry passes in the lane. The ball commonly goes right through his mitts.
LGHL: I assume the win over Maryland helped to calm down some of the more disappointed voices in the Sparty fandom, but is this game a must-win for Michigan State, both in terms of postseason hopes and (perhaps more importantly) keeping the fans satisfied with the team’s progress?
TOC: Simply, this is a must-win. Ohio State seems like a team in a tailspin and MSU needs to be picking off the teams at the bottom of the conference standings. I don’t think the Maryland win has settled anyone down; there is still a lot of displeasure with the team’s overall performance. But we have seen the potential, and we are just waiting for Izzo to figure out how to untap it regularly.
If I knew how to do that, I’d be sitting on the sideline tomorrow. Even a win tomorrow won’t make any of us happy, but a loss would make us all go absolutely berserk.
LGHL: If Ohio State has a chance to pull off the upset at home, what is the one thing that they absolutely must, and what is one sneaky important thing that could turn the tide of the game in their favor?
TOC: MSU has a few very good shooters, including from deep. What they lack, mostly, is a reliable inside game. If you want to beat MSU, stop the three-point shot. Play tough defense on the perimeter, watch our screens, and stay on your man. You are better off letting us pump-fake and then step in for a long two, or even throw it down inside (where, as I said before, Mady may or may not catch the pass. But if MSU can consistently get open 3s, then it can play with anyone.
LGHL: What is your prediction (either score, storylines, or how it pays out) for this game?
TOC: I agreed with your prediction that the winner would score 71. Of course, I am picking my team to come out on top, and I don’t think it will be as close as you predicted. I say MSU 71-59.