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COLUMBUS — Today the calendar officially flips.
As if the Siberian frost was not reminder enough, college football season is over and Big Ten basketball is here.
No. 3 Ohio State’s showdown at fifth-ranked Michigan State nudges open the annual three-month window in which Buckeyes hoops emerge from the outsized shadow of the Horseshoe.
January games don’t come much bigger. The latest edition of this ever-growing rivalry between the league’s two unflagging powers — OSU and Michigan State have won or shared six of the past nine league championships — will be just the second top-five game ever in East Lansing. Top-ranked Indiana beat No. 4 MSU at the Breslin Center last year.
“Rivalries are built on two good teams and playing for something, and us and Ohio State have played for a lot of Big Ten championships the last six or seven years, or at least been right in the hunt,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “This better not become just another game.”
With the deep freeze canceling classes and media interviews, the Buckeyes spent Monday hunkered inside the Schottenstein Center making final preparations for their biggest test of the season.
So far they have mostly cruised through an early schedule yet to feature a currently ranked team. OSU is 6-0 against teams in the top 100 of the RPI.
One of six unbeaten teams left nationally, their formula is simple: Balanced offense and spirit-crushing defense. LaQuinton Ross (13.6 points) leads a cast of seven players averaging at least 6.8 points — including reserve freshman forward and St. John’s Jesuit graduate Marc Loving — while the Buckeyes have yet to allow 70 points. They lead Division I in fewest points allowed per possession (.853).
“Their defense is definitely what’s won for them, and that’s what usually wins for people,” Izzo said. “They just take it to another level. Part of that is [senior guard Aaron] Craft, but part of that is their length and athleticism.”
The veteran Spartans will stress OSU like no team before. They have a veritable Big Four in their pair of projected first-round NBA draft picks — sophomore guard Gary Harris (18.2 points) and senior forward Adreian Payne (16.1) — all-conference senior point guard Keith Appling (15.6), and former McDonald’s All-American forward Branden Dawson (11.2).
MSU, which spent three weeks ranked atop the country after beating then-No. 1 Kentucky in Chicago, has won 16 of its last 18 Big Ten home games.
Perhaps reading too much into the matchups is futile. No matter what, history suggests Ohio State’s games against Michigan State will feature a high-wire finish.
One of the Spartans’ home losses the past two years? The 2012 regular-season finale capped by Libbey graduate William Buford’s buzzer-beating game-winner to give OSU a share of the conference title.
The Spartans responded a week later with a 68-64 win over Ohio State in the 2012 Big Ten championship game while the rivals played three more thrillers last season — including the Buckeyes’ 61-58 victory in the conference tournament semifinals.
“I just got done watching our game against them last year in the Big Ten Tournament,” Izzo said. “If I wasn’t coaching I’d say, ‘God that was a heck of a game.’ There’s been some great games, most of them have gone right down to the wire. There have been some really good games. I think they’re very well played. I think it’s been a good, clean hard-fought rivalry.”
And today will bring one of its biggest chapters yet.
“Those are some high-level games,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “It’s been amazing.”
CRAFT, HAYES TAKE HONORS: Northwest Ohio natives swept the Big Ten’s weekly honors.
Craft, a Liberty-Benton graduate, was named the conference player of the week, while Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes, a Whitmer graduate, earned recognition as the top freshman.
Craft averaged 8.0 points, 7.0 assists, 3.5 steals, and 5.5 rebounds without committing a turnover in the Buckeyes’ wins over Purdue and Nebraska. Hayes averaged 13.5 points and 5.0 boards as No. 4 Wisconsin (15-0, 2-0) continued on its best start in more than a century with wins over Northwestern and No. 22 Iowa.