Buckeyes Face Spartans in Key Matchup
By Rob Ogden
Ohio State's biggest rival in football? Easy. But in basketball? I might have to get back to you on that one.
Depending on age and general demographics of any particular Ohio State basketball fan, their answer to that question might be different than that of the fan cheering next to them.
In school during the Greg Oden/Mike Conley year? You would probably say Wisconsin is the Buckeyes' biggest basketball rival.
A few years older, you might say Michigan.
Older than that? How about Indiana?
What about now? Could it be Michigan State?
Heck, even coach Thad Matta can't pick just one.
"What I've found in my 10 years in the Big Ten, everybody's a rival," Matta said Monday as the No. 3 Buckeyes prepared to face No. 5 Michigan State in the first-ever top-5 meeting between the schools.
It might come as a bit of a surprise that Tuesday's game will be the first of its kind considering the success each program has experienced the past 15 years.
Since 1999, the teams have combined for nine final fours and 11 Big Ten regular-season championships.
Last season, Ohio State topped the Spartans in a top-10 showdown in the Big Ten tournament. It was the 14th meeting between the schools with both teams ranked in the top 25. Those games are split evenly with seven wins a piece.
Six of those games have come during the past two seasons, with each team winning three. The past five contests have been decided by 3, 8, 3, 4, and 2 points, respectively.
“When you look at the success Michigan State has had and we’ve had over the course of the last eight years, from that standpoint, we’ve had some battles with them,” Matta said. “We’ve had great games and there have been great players on the court and the fans, in terms of intensity, are right there.
“We’ve been fortunate to play in a lot of these games over the last few years. We have to keep the focus on ourselves, and our guys are smart enough to know we have to play great to have a chance to win.”
This Michigan State team is no different from the ones the Buckeyes have faced in the past, Matta said.
The Spartans spent much of the early part of the season at No. 1 after knocking off top-ranked Kentucky in November.
They possess two of the Big Ten's best scorers in guard Gary Harris (18.2 points per game) and forward Adreian Payne (16.1).
"Obviously you've got a typical, great Michigan State team and they're very, very experienced so from handling their defensive intensity to the transition offense to rebounding the basketball you have to play great basketball across the board to beat them," Matta said.
The Spartans rank second in the Big Ten in scoring offense, but their assists per game is what really stands out.
They rank first in the country with 18.9 assists per game, which makes for a great matchup against a Buckeye defense that allows an NCAA-leading 7.7 assists per game.
“Their defense is definitely what has won for them, and that’s what usually wins for people,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
“Part of it is their length and athleticism and now they’ve got guys coming off the bench that started at times last year. They are a very solid, athletic, long, good defensive team that has an offense that is getting better as the year goes on.”
All-time, the Buckeyes are 20 games below .500 in games played in East Lansing, but have won two of the past three meetings at the Breslin Center, where they will face the Spartans for the first time this season.
Tuesday's game might mean just a little bit more.
"Two top 5 teams playing doesn't happen very often," Izzo said. "It is a special event."
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