Saturday’s showdown in East Lansing between #11 Ohio State and #18 Michigan State is a vital game for both squads. Though the two teams enter the contest from totally different positions, both the Buckeyes and the Spartans will be looking to establish themselves with a significant conference win on Saturday. A victory would be particularly big for Michigan State, as the team could use positive momentum heading into the teeth of a tough Big Ten conference schedule.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans (15-3, 4-1) have not had an easy journey to this point. Injuries, less than stellar play at times and a recent altercation have all hampered the Green and White. Two of Michigan State’s top players, guards Branden Dawson and Gary Harris, have both caused concern this season. Harris has had repeated problems with both shoulders, while Dawson recently had knee trouble. Dawson had the Spartan Nation holding its breath when he crumpled to the floor, holding his surgically repaired left knee during Michigan State’s 66-56 win over Nebraska on Sunday. “I was like, ‘Oh crap, there goes the season,’” MSU starting center Derrick Nix said. However, Dawson only tweaked his knee and was soon back in the game, a huge break for the Spartans.
Dawson was the source of anxiety once again when the sophomore engaged in an altercation with junior center Adreian Payne on Wednesday morning. The scuffle between the off-campus roommates began with some needling, but ended up in a small fist fight. Punches were thrown, damaging a wall at the Nittany Lion Inn, where the incident took place. Minor injuries were sustained, but nothing to keep either Spartan from competing. Izzo quickly cleared up the situation, as he benched both players for the first half of MSU’s game on Wednesday night against Penn State. “I spent my entire afternoon meeting with the players involved, and they are sincerely remorseful,” Izzo said following the skirmish. The Spartans went on to beat PSU, 81-72. After the game, Izzo complimented the two on how they handled the situation. “I like the way they both responded. They resolved it. It was joking like you do with your brother.”
Michigan State has also been plagued by poor play against lesser teams. The Spartans sneaked by Louisiana-Lafayette and Iowa with narrow three point victories, but were burned in an upset loss to Miami earlier in the season. Michigan State can come out sluggish against a weaker opponent, but the Spartans can also go toe-to-toe with powerhouses such as Kansas, who MSU defeated earlier in the season, 67-64.
The Buckeyes have not had been faced with the amount of adversity that Michigan State has. Ohio State is coming off a huge 56-53 win over Michigan, and riding high after point guard Aaron Craft and Co. spelled Trey Burke and the Michigan offense. Ohio State turned in an exceptional effort early in the game, racing to a 29-8 lead in the first thirteen minutes of the contest. The Buckeyes proved they can match up with some of the best the NCAA has to offer in the triumph over the then-second ranked Wolverines. But the Bucks can’t rest on their laurels in the upcoming game against the Spartans. Michigan State is a dangerous team, especially in East Lansing.
Ohio State can expect to play the same type of game it played against Michigan. The Spartans feature a stout defense that is third in the Big Ten in allowing only 58.5 points per game. MSU will likely hold the Buckeyes under 70 points, as Izzo’s squad has only allowed opponents to exceed that amount three times this season. OSU already plays at a slow pace on offense, not helping its cause. The Bucks will rely on Deshaun Thomas for points, as they have done all season. Thomas will need to duplicate the 20 point performance he notched against the Wolverines. Ohio State will also require production from Craft and sophomore forward Sam Thompson, who both notched nine points last Sunday.
The Buckeyes, known for their tough defense, will have to keep up that reputation against the Spartans. Michigan State has a number of offensive weapons, ranging from Dawson to junior guard Keith Appling. Though MSU is primarily known for its defense, the Spartans can light it up on offense, as they did against Penn State on Wednesday, scoring 52 points in the second half.
Schematically, if OSU can take away Michigan State playmakers Dawson and Harris, the zone defense can be an effective tool in stopping the Spartans. In the first half on Wednesday, the Nittany Lions utilized a 3-2 zone, holding MSU to 29 points. At the same time, Michigan State can take advantage of the Buckeyes’ vulnerability to the zone defense. On Sunday, Ohio State struggled when Michigan confronted the Bucks with a zone defense. But when the Wolverines played a man defense, the Buckeyes excelled on offense. The Spartans need to be careful in playing that style of defense, as Thomas can be lethal against a man scheme.
Look for this game to be a classic Big Ten brawl. Both OSU’s Deshaun Thomas and MSU’s Branden Dawson will be critical to the success of their respective teams. But the outcome will depend on which team’s secondary playmakers can take control. For Ohio State, Aaron Craft has to continue his stellar defense and also produce a lot of offense. Sam Thompson needs to have a solid day on offense. Big men Amir Williams and Evan Ravenal must secure rebounds and pick up points in the paint. For Michigan State, production from guards Gary Harris, sophomore Travis Trice and junior Keith Appling will be crucial. Trice and Appling are an especially dangerous pair when on the court together. Centers Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne also need to have solid outings for the Spartans to emerge victorious.
Regardless of the outcome, Saturday’s matchup between two stellar Big Ten foes (set for 6 PM on ESPN) should be an indication of where Michigan State and Ohio State stand in a highly competitive conference that boasts six teams ranked in the top 25.