Expect to see … Ohio State edition
Welcome to the battle for first place in the Big Ten.
When Michigan State (8-3 Big Ten) travels to Columbus to play Ohio State (9-2) on Saturday, it will decide who sits atop the conference and who holds a slight edge over the rest of the competition. This game is huge for both sides because if the season ends in a tie between MSU and OSU — the winner of this one will have the leg-up (for now) in the tiebreaker.
Here’s my prediction about what Michigan State will have to do to beat Ohio State:
1. Body up Sullinger
The Buckeyes big man has been nothing but trouble for any team the Buckeyes have played. But no other team has had a player who matches him physically, like Derrick Nix.
Sullinger averages 17.4 points per game and 9.0 rebounds and is listed at 6-foot-9, 265 pounds. Nix (6-9, 270) can guard him and test him defensively in ways Sullinger is unfamiliar with.
Nix must stay out of foul trouble in order to be effective on Sullinger. Last season, Sullinger had 11 points and two rebounds in the lone meeting with the Spartans, MSU lost by 10, but expect them to employ a similar gameplan to shut down the Buckeyes big man: Get him in foul trouble and keep him neutralized.
Adreian Payne will have to find a way to be effective on Sullinger to keep Nix fresh and to make Sullinger work against height and length. As usual, their tag team effort
2. Pick your poison
The Buckeyes feature known offensive weapons in Sullinger, Aaron Craft and William Buford. But, other Buckeyes can be the downfall of opponents — and have been, at times, this season.
Deshaun Thomas has scored in double figures in all but three games, and has the ability to go off at any time. Lenzelle Smith Jr. even has shown he can do major damage, such as a 17-point game against Michigan.
As point one illustrated, the Spartans likely will body up Sullinger and work to shut him down. Draymond Green will be on Buford, and Keith Appling will be on Craft. Thomas and Smith COULD have big games, and that’s just a chance the Spartans are going to have to take with Ohio State.
3. No bad stretches — consistency
After the 20-point win against Penn State on Wednesday, Tom Izzo described the performance as “bad, good, bad, good, bad, good, good.”
MSU cannot afford these bad periods against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are too good and too talented to take a few minutes off against. Forty minutes of consistent basketball will go a long way for Michigan State. This means you Brandon Wood and Payne.
4. Control the pace
Keith Appling, as in most games, will be essential to the success of the Spartans. Craft is a top point guard, but he doesn’t have the athleticism and quickness of Appling.
Appling needs to control the pace and push the ball in transition, keeping out in front of the Buckeyes. Getting easy buckets is big in any game, but especially against a top team — you take them as often as you can.
Also, Appling is at his best when he is out in transition and getting to the hoop. That has been his bread-and-butter this season and it reflects when he is in his element. Hopefully, Spartans fans see Appling getting to the rim and finishing early and often.
This falls to Brandan Kearney, Wood and Austin Thornton, too. All of them will be responsible for pushing the ball. Frankly, it falls to Payne and Nix as well to get the ball to those guys quickly off the rebounds.
5. Get your RPI up with a top signature win
This is the kind of signature win every team wants. No. 3 team in the country in its arena. While it still is a ways away, and this should by no means be a thought for the players themselves, it is a reality about this game for MSU. Get a win and get yourself in even better standing for a higher seed come tournament time.
This is a hard one to pick.
It’s a road game, but it is in Value City Arena — which is one of the least intimidating arenas out there, even though OSU has won 39 in a row at home.
It’s one of the nation’s top teams, with one of the nation’s top players.
But it has seemed at times that Michigan State down to its competitions level, but also up to its competition.
This game will be a great indicator of where this team currently is, but I don’t know if it quite has it for this one.
Michigan State loses 70-64.