Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Michigan
When: 9:00 p.m., EST, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021
TV/Radio: ESPN/Spartan Sports Radio
Ohio State (18-5, 12-5): No. 7 (Kenpom)
1 - CJ Walker (6’1” sr)
2 - Duane Washington (6’3” jr), Meechie Johnson (6’2” fr)
3 - Justin Ahrens (6’6” jr), Eugene Brown (6’6” fr)
4 - Justice Sueing (6’7” jr), Seth Towns (6’8” sr)
5 - E.J. Liddell (6’7” so), Zed Key (6’8” fr)
With Kyle Young out for the game, in a huge blow to Ohio State’s front-court, expect to see a lot of E.J. Liddell at center. His low-post and mid-range game were a handful for the Spartans in the first matchup, and the Spartans’ bigs, whichever ones get the bulk of the assignment, will have to stay solid and keep Liddell from getting easy looks and away from the free-throw line.
With the Buckeyes likely playing considerably smaller, I expect to see a lot more minutes with all three of Walker, Washington, and Ahrens on the court together. Those three provide the most potent perimeter combination with Walker attacking the paint off the bounce, and Ahrens and Washington raining three-pointers off the catch and off the bounce, respectively.
Finding a cover for Washington and Liddell is the path to giving this team trouble, but both guys are playing at an all-league level right now. Getting one or both in foul trouble in the first half would go a long way to making this OSU team less dangerous.
The first matchup came at a strange point in the Spartans’ season, in just the second game back from the COVID-related pause, Michigan State played Joey Hauser 34 minutes, Josh Langford went 4-15 from the field, Rocket Watts went 2-9 from the field, Foster Loyer played nearly 20 minutes, Gabe Brown did not play at all, and Marcus Bingham Jr. and Mady Sissoko combined to play 13 very quiet minutes.
The team has evolved in a major way. It starts with Aaron Henry, who, in the last month (since the first match game against Ohio State), has morphed into a driven, first-option with the ability to score at will and to close games. In the last seven games, Henry has had four games with over 20 points, has played a complete floor game, and provided his consistent, stellar defense. Langford has also relocated his game and his physical peak, and appears to be channeling the spirit of Spartan-greats past (Tom Izzo described Langford’s recent rebounding heroics as evocative of “Charlie Bell and Jason Richardson”), with multiple efficient outings, including the past two games that have seen him score 29 points, pull down 22 rebounds, and hand out six assists.
Watts, Brown, Bingham, and Hauser, in a smaller bench-role, have all found some consistency in the last couple of weeks, and, simply put, this is a different team than the one the Buckeyes played in Columbus.
Henry, Langford, Brown, Watts, and A.J. Hoggard have to win their back-court contest with Washington, Walker, and Ahrens — Washington is the key, and I would put Aaron Henry on him as much as possible. Stick Brown on Ahrens and tell Gabe to not let him get a shot off. On offense, the Spartan guards have to play more physically and attack the paint far better. Gabe Brown, Josh Langford, and Aaron Henry will all get chances to crash the offensive glass, and I expect at least a few second-chance baskets from the Spartan back-court.
With Liddell, Key, and Sueing as a small, tough, and physical front-court, this game is begging for Hauser, Malik Hall, Julius Marble, and Thomas Kithier to really pitch in and find some consistency on the defensive and rebounding fronts. I still think that Bingham and Sissoko will need to play, and play well, for the Spartans to win; while the physical-quickness matchup does not favor the two taller Spartans, they should have a lot of success on the offensive glass, and should help deter OSU from the Spartans’ own painted area.
Bottom line? This comes down to execution, focus, and intensity. In the first contest, the Buckeyes drilled the Spartans with their fiery attitude, physical toughness, and ability to get their offensive players to their comfort zones. The Spartans cannot allow Liddell or Washington a moment’s rest or an ounce of comfort. Get into their grills and air-space, and impose your will on them. If a single easy lay-up is allowed, then I will be disappointed. With the Buckeyes’ thin front-court, the Spartans should be crashing the glass on both ends with abandon, and contesting every shot near the paint.
Desperation season continues, but the team is coming together before our eyes. Going to a smaller lineup has unlocked Rocket Watts and Joshua Langford’s games — giving Watts more space to attack the paint and Langford more space off-ball to catch and either fire or attack close-outs with help defenders a half-step further away.
Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown will be the deciding factors in this one — I expect the front-court to struggle with Liddell and Sueing, but Henry and Brown will have chances to make plays on both ends, and they will make those plays.
The Spartans are clawing this season back one game at a time. In a season that has seen its ups and downs, and the entire fan base (including yours truly) falling in and out of love with this team...it’s time to hold the line.
MSU 77 OSU 72
Players play. Tough players win.