In terms of early January college basketball, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Jan. 7 showdown between Ohio State and Michigan State.
The Buckeyes will travel to East Lansing to take on the Spartans in a clash between Top Five teams and Big Ten rivals. The Scarlet and Gray won two out of three against Tom Izzo’s bunch last year, with the tiebreaker coming in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
Read on to get a preview and prediction for this critical conference game.
When: Tuesday, Jan. 7 at 9 p.m. ET
Where: East Lansing, Michigan
The Big Ten is arguably the top conference in the nation this season, and both Ohio State and Michigan State are on the shortlist of league title contenders. The assumption here is that the Buckeyes, Spartans, Wisconsin Badgers and possible dark horse Iowa will battle each other all year with the champion emerging from that foursome.
That means any head-to-head showdown between squads in that group takes on extra importance. Furthermore, Ohio State and Michigan State both have to travel to Madison to play a Wisconsin team that rarely loses at home, so the loser of this early conference game could be staring at a third-place finish right out of the gate.
Wisconsin doesn’t make a return trip to East Lansing or Columbus.
Lastly, both Ohio State and Michigan State are potential No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, so a head-to-head victory would be critical in that race.
Aaron Craft vs. Keith Appling
There are a number of important matchups within the matchup when Ohio State takes on Michigan State, but the “winner” of the point guard clash was also the winner of the game in all three of the contests last season.
When Michigan State defended home court against the Buckeyes in the first meeting, Keith Appling scored 15 points and hit two critical free throws in the final seconds of the three-point win. While Aaron Craft did tally six assists and five steals, he was only 2-of-8 from the field and never looked comfortable on the offensive end.
However, Craft got revenge in Columbus by completely dominating Appling. Craft scored 21 points, dished out six assists and held Appling to a mere three points on 1-of-6 shooting. Appling also turned the ball over three times.
Finally, in the Big Ten tournament Craft had one of the best games of his career with 20 points, nine assists, four steals and an impressive 9-of-13 clip from the field. Appling did score 16, but he was 6-of-17 from the field and forced the issue against Craft all game.
Appling is a senior and has dealt with Craft for four seasons, so he knows how tenacious the Buckeye point guard can be on defense. If Craft can have the type of offensive impact he did in the final two matchups last season, Ohio State will be in a great position to pick up a critical road victory.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott vs. Gary Harris
While recent history has been kind to the Buckeyes when it comes to the Craft versus Appling matchup, Michigan State’s most dangerous guard is Gary Harris. Guarding him will fall on the shoulders of Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott.
Fortunately for Ohio State, Scott may just be the second-best defensive guard in the country, even if he is only second-best on his own team. He is averaging more than two steals a game and uses his quickness to stay in front of ball-handlers and dart into passing lanes.
When Scott is on the bench, Smith Jr. will likely be tasked with stopping Harris. Smith is longer than Scott, which could bother Harris when he's shooting jumpers, but he doesn’t alter the game on defense the way Scott does.
Ohio State may be the best defensive team in the country, but Harris is a future lottery pick who is averaging 18.2 points a game. The Buckeyes may slow him down a bit, but expect Harris to score critical baskets in this tightly contested showdown.
Amir Williams vs. Adreian Payne
Coming into the season, the biggest concern Ohio State had was its interior play. Amir Williams still had not lived up to his vast promise as a McDonald’s All-American recruit, and there was little depth behind him in the form of Trey McDonald.
Fortunately for Thad Matta and company, Williams has surpassed expectations thus far this year with 9.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and two blocks a game. He has finally turned into a formidable presence down low on both ends of the floor and has posted multiple double-doubles this season.
While Williams has been solid for the Buckeyes, Adreian Payne has been a legitimate superstar for the Spartans. He is scoring 16.1 points and grabbing 7.9 rebounds a night and is a threat to score from anywhere on the floor, including behind the three-point line. In fact, Payne’s ability to stretch the floor could pose a serious problem for Williams, who rarely ventures out of the paint.
Despite Williams’ improved play, the nod here has to go to Payne and the Spartans.
While the individual matchups will be critical in deciding which of these two Big Ten heavyweights emerges victorious, there are a handful of X-factors that will come into play.
For one, the home-court advantage Michigan State will enjoy should not be overlooked. Last year these teams split in the regular season with the home team taking each matchup, and few atmospheres in the country are as intimidating as The Izzone in the Breslin Center.
Furthermore, the rebounding disparity between Ohio State and Michigan State may be the most important X-Factor of the entire game. The Spartans rank in the top 20 nationally in total boards per game, while the Buckeyes check in at 133rd as of this writing. Sure, Williams is playing better for Matta, but Michigan State rebounds at a premier level from almost every position.
However, if there is one X-factor that favors Ohio State, it is its ability to force turnovers and play suffocating defense. The Buckeyes have yet to allow an opponent to crack the 70-point plateau this season and create much of their offense off of Craft and Scott steals. If the Scarlet and Gray can do that consistently against Michigan State, they could come away with a win.
Michigan State 74, Ohio State 70
Despite Ohio State’s excellence on defense, Michigan State will be the first team to crack the 70-point mark against the Buckeyes this season.
The combination of Harris on the outside and Payne on the inside will be just enough to get the Spartans an important home victory. With a rematch scheduled for later in the year in Columbus, this game is slightly more important for Michigan State, and it will play with the appropriate sense of urgency.
Izzo’s squad will overwhelm Ohio State down low throughout the matchup, which will lead to many second-chance opportunities.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.