The Big Ten is weird this year. Every time one team looks to be turning the corner and pulling away from the pack something stupid happens.
Some examples: Minnesota rips off three impressive wins, then lose back to back games to Michigan State and Penn State. Purdue beats Wisconsin and then loses next time out to Iowa. Nebraska takes down Indiana and Maryland on the road and then loses to Northwestern at home. Wisconsin is the only team that hasn’t lost an inexplicable game, only taking an L at the hands of Purdue, but everything else is a jumbled mess.
All of that has left the door open for Michigan State. Despite injuries, youth and a height shortage the Spartans find themselves atop the conference standings at 4-1 but if they want to stay there, they’ll have to buck the #B1G trend and win games they’re supposed to.
Today’s game against a struggling Ohio State would qualify as one of those.
- Record: 10-7 (0-4 Conference / 9-2 Home)
- Best Win: vs Providence (RPI: 70), 72-67
- Worst Loss: vs Florida Atlantic (RPI: 322), 77-79 (OT)
Last Five Games
- 1/12 — @ #18 Wisconsin, L 66-89
- 1/8 — @ Minnesota, L 68-78
- 1/5 — vs #20 Purdue, L 75-76
- 1/1 — @ Illinois, L 70-75
- 12/22 — vs UNC Asheville, W 79-77
The Ohio State basketball program has fallen on some uncharacteristically hard times in the past few years. Since their 2012-13 run to the Elite 8, they haven’t made it past the round of 32 and missed the dance altogether last season. The 2016-17 campaign hasn’t been the bounceback they were hoping for, either.
Through non-conference season, there were actually quite a few similarities between OSU and MSU. Both teams played tough slates — the Buckeyes lost to Virginia and UCLA, but beat UConn — had some close calls against inferior opponents — a 6-point win over North Carolina Central and 2-point win over UNC Asheville — and one really bad loss — an 2-point home OT loss to the Fighting Schnellenberger’s of Florida Atlantic.
Since the start of Big Ten play, however, the two have taken drastically different paths. As mentioned earlier, MSU is 4-1, but the Buckeyes are still in search of their first conference win at 0-4. So, yeah, they’re desperate and probably a little embarrassed after getting waxed by Wisconsin earlier in the week.
If they can’t right the ship, they’re on pace to make it back-to-back trips to the NIT.
Buckeyes To Know
The Buckeye’s plummet has not been due to a lack of frontline talent, but rather a lack of depth. Since Keita Bates-Diop went down for the year with a stress fracture in his leg, Ohio State’s already thin team has gotten even thinner.
As you can see, they rely heavily on their starters, with four of them averaging over 30 minutes a game. Three of the four — Jae’Sean Tate, JaQuan Lyle and Marc Loving —have very unique aspects to their games.
Lyle is essentially a 6’5” point guard and leads the team with over 5 assists per game. Loving has been a bit of an enigma in his career, but is a 6’8” swingman with crazy long arms and a pretty stroke. Finally, Tate is a 6’4” bulldog who plays on the glass like he’s closer to Loving’s height than his own. They might resemble the the island of misfit toys, but that versatility can cause problems for opponents on both ends of the floor.
The other two starters, 7-footer Trevor Thompson and 6’2” Kam Williams, are much more turnkey than the other three. Thompson is the only true big for the Bucks and averages nearly a double-double, while Williams is a prolific shooter from beyond the arc, averaging close to 40%. He’s only 4-of-16 in Big Ten play, but can explode any given night.
As starters go, it’s a pretty good group, but there just isn’t much behind them to speak of after Bates-Diop’s injury. Junior Center Micah Potter and sophomore guard CJ Jackson have each seen an uptick in minutes since conference play started, but neither is what you would call prolific. Basically, if the Buckeyes are going to win, the starters are going to have to carry them.
How Does MSU Match Up?
This feels like a Nick Ward game.
Time and time again, Ward has gotten opposing big men into foul trouble. His target tonight will be Thompson, who is a load at 7-feet, 250 pounds, but has already fouled out of four games this year. Expect MSU to pound the paint early and often to try and get that shallow bench.
MSU could also expose the other frontcourt matchup; Miles Bridges and Jae’Sean Tate. Both lead their respective teams in scoring despite more or less playing power forward, a position for which neither are a traditional fit.
For as good as Tate has been, Bridges is taller and a much better athlete, factors that should show up on the glass. If Bridges can neutralize Tate’s rebounding effectiveness it will go a long ways towards taking him out of the game offensively since he is not a three-point threat (15.8%).
Finally, someone needs to keep an eye on Kam Williams. He hasn’t scored more than 15 points since early in December but if he makes a couple early he can light it up for an entire game.
Coined by our own Chris Vannini on The Only Podcast a few weeks back, it’s become the most accurate and en vogue term used to describe Michigan State. The last two games, a loss to Penn State in which they looked mentally unprepared and a near-20-point drubbing of a red-hot Minnesota team, are case in point. That game-to-game variance is what makes this contest anything but a gimme.
Sure, Ohio State is winless in the Big Ten, but their schedule — @ Illinois, vs Purdue, @ Minnesota and @ Wisconsin — has been significantly more difficult than Michigan State’s and their Head Coach, Thad Matta, has been in and won bigger games than this. Plus, they’re desperate. Playing on the road against a talented team with a sense of urgency is daunting.
That being said, I’m going with the Spartans. After showing up flat against Penn State, I expect them to be much better prepared for this road trip. Ohio State will be as well but I think MSU’s depth ends up making the difference in a close one.