Starting Five: Ohio State-Michigan State preview
With exactly a month left until the end of what has been one of the more wild Big Ten basketball season’s memory, the conference’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams will face off on Saturday when No. 3 Ohio State (21-3, 9-2) hosts No. 11 Michigan State (19-5, 8-3). From a potential conference title to the Big Ten’s player of the year award, plenty will be on the line after the 6 p.m. tip-off that will air live on ESPN.
Big Ten Battle
High stakes match-ups between these two programs isn’t anything new. The Buckeyes and Spartans have combined for five of the past six conference regular season titles and with MSU having the chance to tie OSU for the Big Ten lead on Saturday, that doesn’t look like a trend that will be ending any time soon.
With an abnormal number of upsets through the first month and a half of Big Ten play, both the Buckeyes' and Spartans' placement atop the conference standings is especially telling of the state of the two teams.
"From top to bottom, in the years I've been in the Big Ten, this is probably as good as it's been," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "Sometimes there's a cut above. The parity this year is just incredible."
MSU has benefitted from a superb senior season from Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green. The Spartans forward leads his team with 15.2 and 10.6 rebounds per game and is also MSU’s top defender with 35 steals and 24 blocks to his credit this season.
“Draymond is a tremendous basketball player,” Matta said. “For us guarding him, it’s going to take five guys out there having an awareness of where he is and what Michigan State needs at that time because they run a lot of stuff through him.”
While it will take a team effort, Matta also said that sophomore Deshaun Thomas will be the most likely candidate to cover Green one-on-one on Saturday.
“We’ll use (Thomas), yeah,” Matta said. “But like I said, what’s funny is watching Michigan State play and all the guys that have tried to guard (Green), and who’s had success and who hasn’t had success.”
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they’ll have their own conference player of the year candidate on the court on Saturday in Jared Sullinger. The sophomore forward appeared to suffer injuries to his neck and tailbone during OSU’s win over Purdue on Tuesday, but Matta said he’ll be good to go against the Spartans.
"He's perfectly fine,” Matta said of Sullinger. “"He wants to win and he'll do whatever he has to do, regardless of the toll it takes on his body."
Sullinger’s teammate, OSU point guard Aaron Craft said that he’s impressed with the way Sullinger has dealt with the physical nature of the Big Ten season.
"The beating he takes on regular basis, most of it is within the context of the game," Craft said. "And most of the times, they're not fouls and they're something you have to deal with. Jared has handled it really well."
The Officiating Factor
Speaking of officiating, there’s a good chance that calls or no-calls could wind up being an important factor in Saturday’s game. That wouldn’t be anything new to the Buckeyes, who dealt with both Sullinger and Craft having their playing time reduced thanks to foul trouble on Tuesday against the Boilermakers.
"The hard part is not deviating from what you're trying to accomplish in terms of both offensively and defensively," Matta said. "One of the things we pride ourselves on is playing hard without fouling. That's a slogan we use."
Purdue coach Matt Painter went as far as saying that the way the game is officiated could wind up being what decides this season’s first match-up between the Buckeyes and Spartans.
"They're both tough teams and physical," Painter said. "It depends on how it gets called. I think that'll be really important how the game is called."
On Tuesday, the Buckeyes managed to overcome Sullinger and Craft’s foul trouble with a slump-busting game from senior William Buford. The OSU guard scored a career-high 29 points and carried the Buckeyes down the stretch in what was their closest win of the Big Ten season.
“That’s one thing about coaching: you develop over a period of time relationships with your players and trust in them,” Matta said. “William makes big shots for us every day in practice.”
The Buckeyes coach said that he never lost faith in his team’s lone senior and that his cold streak to start the Big Ten season was similar to that of one of Buford’s former teammates.
“I remember five years ago when Jon Diebler was struggling shooting, I was the only one that kept the faith in him,” Matta said. “He went on to become the all-time Big Ten leader (in three-pointers made) because I saw Jon shoot every day and I knew was his percentage was in practice and it was just a matter of time.”
With so much on the line on Saturday, Matta is hoping to see more of what he’s seen in practice and on Tuesday out of the Toledo-native.