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Men’s Basketball Preview: Michigan State at No. 23 Ohio State

Both teams are coming off disappointing losses and in need of momentum entering postseason play.

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you want a good perspective of the 2021-2022 Michigan State season, take a quick look at a simple bell curve graph. Michigan State began the season unranked, reached its peak about midway through the year, ranked in the top-10 and now the team has seemingly lost its footing since then. A slight spike in the curve came last Saturday in a surprising victory for the Spartans at home versus Purdue, which feels like it occurred months ago.

Unsurprisingly, this year’s Big Ten season has had its fair share of chaos, with with more than half of the teams vying for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin’s thrilling win over Purdue on Tuesday night cemented the Badgers as the conference’s regular season champion (well, at least a share of the conference title, anyway), however, there are still questions to be answered.

For Tom Izzo’s team, questions that are usually answered before March are still glaring — actually, blinding. Upon what looked like a solid chance for a conference title and top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State may now still need one more win to feel totally safe on Selection Sunday. The 87-70 loss at Michigan on Tuesday night doesn't help sustain momentum entering the last two regular season games.

The last two games for MSU actually highlight the inconsistencies that have debilitated the team lately. A solid showing against Ohio State in Columbus on Thursday would not only be massive in terms of tournament aspirations, but also for the team’s confidence heading into the March Madness.

Thursday’s game between Michigan State and Ohio State tips off at 7 p.m. Eastern Time and will be broadcast on ESPN.

Michigan State’s Outlook:

As previously mentioned, the Spartans are coming off another humbling loss to archrival Michigan, after what may have been Michigan State’s most important victory of the year against Purdue. The Spartans currently sit at 19-10 overall, 10-8 in the Big Ten and ranked No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, while unranked by the Associated Press.

The rescheduling of the Michigan game seemed to have come at a very inopportune time for MSU, as the Spartans only had one day to prepare for their lone matchup of the season versus the Buckeyes. The team traveled to Columbus shortly after the game in Ann Arbor in order to get as much time in for preparation.

One of the bigger questions for the Spartans entering the game surrounds the status of point guard A.J. Hoggard, who was limited to just 11 minutes on Tuesday night due to an (non-COVID) illness. Hoggard has played well down the stretch of the season and the combination of a him and Tyson Walker in the backcourt has presented issues for opponents.

If Hoggard is limited once again, the Spartans will need to find other means of playmaking. Scoring options are plentiful on the team, but a lack of consistency across the board has made it difficult to pick up the slack.

Ohio State’s Outlook:

Following an impressive victory at Illinois a week ago, Ohio State has dropped its last two games against two Big Ten bottom-feeders, Maryland and Nebraska, respectively. While both teams sit near the bottom of the Big Ten standings, it goes to show nothing comes easy in this conference — especially in March.

The Buckeyes have been ravished by injuries throughout the year and may be without Kyle Young and big man Zed Key against Michigan State, who both have been key to the team’s success. Young (8.2 points per game) exited the Nebraska game early with an undisclosed illness and started in place of Key, who missed the game with an ankle injury. Key (8.3 points per game) started the previous 13 contests before sitting Tuesday. Both player’s statuses are uncertain for Thursday’s game.

Despite health concerns, as long as forward E.J. Liddell suits up for Ohio State, the Buckeyes will have a shot. The Big Ten Player of the Year candidate is averaging 19.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, leading the team in both categories. He also presents matchup problems offensively for MSU, averaging 2.6 blocks per game and the ability to guard multiple positions.

Freshman guard Malaki Branham has had big games this year and also provides a dangerous scoring option in the backcourt.

Keys to the Game:

Liddell should be able to get his offensively, as MSU has had trouble containing teams’ best scoring options this season. However, if Young and Key aren't able to play, the Buckeyes will need to find someone to pick up the load in a big way.

If the Spartans do have a size advantage with Key out, expect to see MSU attacking the paint at a higher rate. Against Michigan, it was difficult for the Spartans to get anything at the rim with Hunter Dickinson and Moussa Diabate patrolling.

There’s potential for a big game from centers Marcus Bingham Jr. and Julius Marble, who have each shown glimpses of dominance around the rim at times this year. Both players also have a tendency to get in foul trouble and will have their hands full with Liddell and Branham attacking the rim.

The Buckeyes will be fighting to finish their regular season on a high note. Even with health issues that could face the Buckeyes, this is going to be a tough game for Michigan State on short rest. Someone will need to step up big to pull out this one, or else Saturday’s home game versus Maryland could be a possible must-win.

March can still be fun for Michigan State men’s basketball, but there is work to do with not much time to do it.