Ohio State was destined to have a down year this year. The Buckeyes lost not only D'Angelo Russell to the NBA but a number of highly productive seniors in Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, and Amir Williams. They rank 299th nationally in KenPom's new minutes continuity stat. Still, Ohio State's worst finish under Thad Matta in KenPom's rankings was 33rd in 2008-09, and Matta has never finished with fewer than 20 wins in Columbus.
Despite three straight bad non-conference losses to UT Arlington, Louisiana Tech, and Memphis, Ohio State rebounded to beat Kentucky on a neutral court. That's exactly what you'd expect from an exceedingly young but talented team: lots of variance.
You'd also expect them to improve over the course of the season, and that's exactly what they've done. After that rocky 8-5 non-con record, they've gone 10-5 in the Big Ten, including wins in six of their last eight games. Granted, their best conference win is at home against Michigan. But to be in the hunt despite all of the offseason losses is impressive.
Ohio State has three chances to score a second signature win (and eleventh conference win) in the last three regular season games, including two games against MSU (one home, one away) and a home game against Iowa. I think they'll be fired up.
When Ohio State has the Ball
Ohio State is exceptionally middling nationally in each of the Four Factors, finishing between 157th (eFG%) and 221st (TO%) in every category. I had to go to the conference-only stats to tease out some more tendencies.
And even there, Ohio State is 9th in the conference in eFG%, turnover rate, and offensive rebounding. They do rank 4th in the Big Ten in free throw rate. In that regard they are led by frosh JaQuan Lyle, who is top-10 in the conference in free throw rate. Lyle is also the main creator for the Buckeyes, sporting an assist rate above 30% in conference. But when Lyle isn't spreading the ball around or getting to the line, he's not much of a shooter despite taking shots in volume; he's just 24-for-91 from behind the arc this year. Hand-check calls may abound.
Other than Lyle, there are a number of decent three-point shooters for OSU. Kam Williams leads the team at 47%, but Marc Loving, Jae'Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop, and A.J. Harris all shoot above 30% as well. Down low, Virginia Tech transfer big man Trevor Thompson and freshman Daniel Giddens will split the majority of minutes. Both Thompson and Giddens turn the ball over too much (but sport high block rates).
With Kenny Goins out, it'll be interesting to see how Deyonta Davis and Gavin Schilling might deal with the smaller, more athletic power forwards of Ohio State in Bates-Diop and Loving. Davis was terrific against Nigel Hayes; can that continue?
When Michigan State has the Ball
Ohio State's strength is absolutely in their defense, which is top-25 nationally and top-3 in the Big Ten. Their style will probably be quite familiar, too: they do a great job of extending possessions (280th slowest defensive tempo nationally) and causing bad shots (18th nationally in eFG%), but don't cause many turnovers. Bates-Diop, Thompson, and Giddens are all great shot-blockers and OSU is 10th nationally in block rate.
This leaves two major questions for this game: first, can MSU's passing game with Denzel Valentine et al open up easy looks? And second, can Matt Costello take advantage of a massive difference in post-play experience? I think that if the answer to either of those questions is yes, then MSU rolls in this game.
Even though I just outlined two ways in which MSU could run away with it, I get the feeling that it will be a tough game. Ohio State has quite a bit on the line, while MSU is more or less just playing for Big Ten and NCAA tournament seeding. Add that to a young team getting better and an underrated basketball rivalry, and I think this one comes down to the final seconds.
MSU 71 - OSU 69