Hoops Preview: MSU at Ohio State

When Thad Matta took the Ohio State head coaching job nearly nine years ago, he looked at the program Tom Izzo had built at Michigan State and thought to himself: “How can I do that?”

Thad Matta is up front about the fact that he models his program after Tom Izzo's (above).

With five Big Ten regular-season championships, three Big Ten tournament crowns and two trips to the Final Four – including a national runner-up finish – it’s safe to say things have gone extremely well for the Buckeyes during Matta’s tenure.

However, have they reached Michigan State’s lofty standards? No, that wouldn’t be fair to say. Izzo has a national championship, six Final Fours and seven Big Ten regular-season titles under his belt. Yes, he’s been at Michigan State twice as long (18 years) as Matta has been at OSU, but Izzo’s program is still the standard bearer in the Big Ten.

But forget recent history for a moment. The only thing the No. 18 Buckeyes (19-7, 9-5 Big Ten) are concerned about is trying to knock off the No. 4 Spartans (22-5, 11-3) when the teams clash in Columbus on Sunday (4 p.m. ET; CBS).

In East Lansing on Jan. 19, Ohio State led at halftime and played MSU down to the wire, but suffered a 59-56 defeat. That game is best remembered for the Buckeyes’ botched play at the end of the contest when sophomore guard Shannon Scott thought he was going to be fouled, then lost track of time, and then lofted a three-point shot that clanged off the side of the backboard.

Despite that play, Scott has improved exponentially since last season and is coming off an impressive performance in OSU’s 71-45 dismantling of visiting Minnesota on Wednesday. Scott had 11 points, five assists, three steals and even three blocked shots. Can the win over the Golden Gophers be just the thing to get the Buckeyes going with March fast approaching? Or was it nothing more than fool’s gold playing against a team that has fallen off the map in recent weeks?

“We played better, but I don’t think we played perfect on Wednesday night,” Matta said of a game that was nip-and-tuck throughout the first half. “But I thought we made some steps in the right direction just as far as continuing to play our basketball and that sort of thing. And that has to be who this basketball team is.”

It’s a cliché in the sports world, but Matta knows the Buckeyes will have to bring their “A” game if they want to have a realistic chance at beating the Spartans, even in the friendly confines of “The Schott.”

“We’re going to be playing a great basketball team,” Matta said. “Hopefully our guys comprehend that we have to play a certain way in order to be effective. That’s how we’re going to practice. There’s a lot of teachable moments from Game One against Michigan State that we’re taking a look at and hopefully we’ll be able to carry them forth.”

Ohio State's Shannon Scott has bad memories of the first game against MSU this year.

The Spartans have a good backcourt – led by junior Keith Appling (13.8 points per game, 3.9 assists per game) and the player that is likely to be Big Ten Freshman of the Year – shooting guard Gary Harris (13.2 ppg). Looking deeper into the numbers, Harris is the deadlier player with his solid shooting percentages of 47.4 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from three-point range (Appling shoots 41 percent from the floor and just 32.3 percent from downtown).

Michigan State will also have a chance to do damage in the paint against OSU, as MSU’s post players of senior Derrick Nix and junior Adreian Payne have a big advantage over the Buckeyes’ interior performers: sophomore Amir Williams and senior Evan Ravenel. It’s not even that Nix and Payne are stellar players, but they’re the typical solid, physical big men that Izzo produces. And it doesn’t help matters for OSU that Payne – a Dayton native – always seems to save his best ball for the Buckeyes.

Williams and Ravenel have struggled so much of late that Matta is giving some playing time to sophomore center Trey McDonald – and other than his free throw shooting – McDonald has looked better than Williams and Ravenel of late. Simply put: The Buckeyes miss Jared Sullinger even more than anyone expected. And everyone expected he’d be greatly missed. People loved to talk about everything Sullinger didn’t do well. “He doesn’t have hops. He gets his shot blocked too often.” You know what he did do? Go for nearly 20 and 10 almost every time out. That is something that is invaluable.

However, the Buckeyes’ woes aren’t just limited to their post players. They’re also a bad perimeter shooting team and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. Ohio State shoots a paltry 36.5 percent from three-point range and almost everyone on the team is right around that mark. It’s not like there are extreme outliers. Example: The best three-point shooter on the team among players with 25 attempts or more from long distance is junior guard Lenzelle Smith at 38.7 percent. (Freshman Amadeo Della Valle – quickly become a cult hero of sorts in Columbus – is shooting 41.7 percent, but has only 24 attempts on the season.)

Another huge problem with this season’s version of the Buckeyes is that the 6-foot-4 Smith is the second-leading scorer at 9.9 points per game. Smith is a solid player. A tough guy who is also second on the team in rebounding (5 rpg). However, he’s the type of guy you want as your fourth or fifth-best scorer. You know, like he was last year when OSU won its third-straight Big Ten championship and marched all the way to the Final Four.

Every team that faces Ohio State knows they can focus on trying to contain the Buckeyes’ star – 6-foot-7 junior forward Deshaun Thomas. He’s the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 20.1 ppg – and also leads OSU with six boards per outing – but he needs more help than he’s been given. And frankly, while Thomas has been very good this year, he hasn’t been off-the-charts great like some were predicting. His shooting percentages of 45.3 percent from the field, including 37.7 percent from three-point range, aren’t bad, but they’re not overly impressive, either. Also, Thomas is averaging 1.4 turnovers per game – which is the same amount of assists he averages – and doesn’t do much else to affect the game (0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks). This is why – while he’s a lock for first-team All-Big Ten honors – no one is giving him serious consideration for Big Ten Player of the Year. All right, that and the fact that Michigan’s Trey Burke and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo are having fantastic seasons. There is that.

So, can the Buckeyes beat the Spartans on Sunday? Certainly. I fully expect a tough game that will go down to the wire.

That said, I’m picking Michigan State. Sparty is a matchup problem for Ohio State and MSU has been playing much better than OSU the last few weeks. Yes, Michigan State is coming off a loss (to No. 1 Indiana) and OSU is coming off a win, but I give the Spartans a slight edge here. The home crowd will help the Buckeyes. But will it be enough to overcome OSU’s deficiencies in the post and as a perimeter-shooting squad? I think the Buckeyes will fall just short.

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