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What To Watch: OSU @ Michigan State

We have our preview and a prediction for Saturday’s game as No. 11 Ohio State goes on the road to face No. 18 Michigan State at the Breslin Center (6 p.m., ESPN).

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In the video boards, we have comments from OSU coach Thad Matta (above) and players Deshaun Thomas and Evan Ravenel (below).

Here is our What To Watch feature for Saturday’s game against Michigan State:

Opponent: Michigan State

* Where: Breslin Center (Capacity: 14,797); East Lansing, Mich.

* Date, Time: Saturday, 6 p.m.

* TV: ESPN (Announcers: Bob Wischusen and Dan Dakich)

* 2012-13 Records: Ohio State, 13-3 overall, 3-1 Big Ten; Michigan State, 15-3 overall, 4-1 Big Ten

* Poll Rankings: Ohio State, 11th in AP poll and USA Today coaches poll; Michigan State, 18th in AP poll and 17th in USA Today coaches poll.

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* RPI Rankings: Ohio State, 25th; Michigan State, 19th.

* Key Players (2012-13 Stats): Ohio State – F Deshaun Thomas, 6-7, jr., 20.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg; G Aaron Craft, 6-2, jr., 8.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.8 spg; G Lenzelle Smith Jr., 6-4, jr., 10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.8 apg; F LaQuinton Ross, 6-8, so., 8.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg; C Amir Williams, 6-11, so., 4.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg; F-C Evan Ravenel, 6-8, sr., 6.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg; F Sam Thompson, 6-7, so., 7.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg; G Shannon Scott, 6-2, so., 5.8 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.0 spg. Michigan State – G Keith Appling, 6-1, jr., 13.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.7 spg; G Gary Harris, 6-4, fr., 12.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg; G Branden Dawson, 6-6, so., 10.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg; C Derrick Nix, 6-9, sr., 9.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg; C Adreian Payne, 6-10, jr., 9.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg; G Travis Trice, 6-0, so., 6.2 ppg, 2.2 apg; G Denzel Valentine, 6-5, fr., 5.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.8 apg.

* Quality Of Opponent: This is another very good team. The Spartans got off to a rough start with a 66-62 loss to Connecticut in a game played at an American airbase in Germany. But they came back four days later and knocked off then-No. 7 Kansas (67-64) in Atlanta. Kansas, of course, went on to defeat Ohio State in Columbus in December. MSU’s two other losses were road games at Miami (Fla.) (67-59) and at then-No. 9 Minnesota (76-63).

Coming into this game, the Spartans have won four straight games overall and are unbeaten at home (11-0). In fact, last year’s OSU win at MSU is the Spartans’ only home loss in its last 30 games at the Breslin Center. In Tom Izzo's 18 seasons, the Spartans are 247-30 at home and 124-21 in Big Ten play.

The backcourt of Appling at the point with Dawson and the freshman Harris on the wings is one of the Big Ten’s best. They love to run as well. The bulky Nix and the wiry Payne do a good job inside. Payne missed the first half of Wednesday’s win at Penn State (81-72) after getting into a scuffle with Dawson at the team hotel. But he redeemed himself with 20 points and seven rebounds in the second half of that win.

* OSU-Michigan State Series: Michigan State leads the all-time series at 60-52 overall, including 36-17 in East Lansing. Ohio State is 5-14 all-time at the Breslin Center, the home of MSU hoops since 1989-90. OSU did not win at Breslin from 1992 until 2006. Beginning with 2006, OSU is 4-2 at Breslin and has won three of its last four games there.

Last year, the Buckeyes were 1-2 against MSU. MSU won in Columbus (58-48), OSU won at East Lansing (72-70) and MSU won the rubber match in the Big Ten tournament championship game in Indianapolis (68-64). Craft averaged 10.7 points and Thomas averaged 10.3 points per game in those three games.

The win at East Lansing, keyed by 25 points and a late jumper by William Buford, helped the Buckeyes snag a share of the Big Ten title last season. All three of those games last year were physical with a combined 101 fouls called.

Under Matta (since 2004-05), OSU is 8-8 against Michigan State. Under Tom Izzo (since 1995-96), MSU is 20-11 against OSU.

* Fun Facts: Matta’s OSU teams are a combined 39-47 against ranked teams in his nine years with the Buckeyes. OSU is 1-3 against ranked teams this year with their loss at then-No. 2 Duke on Nov. 29 (73-68), the home loss to then-No. 9 Kansas (74-66) on Dec. 22, the loss at then No. 11-Illinois (74-55) Jan. 5 and the home win over then-No. 2 Michigan (56-53) last Sunday. In 13 years as a college head coach, Matta’s teams are a combined 48-56 against ranked teams … OSU is 1-2 on the road this year with losses at Duke and Illinois and a win at Purdue (74-64) … The Buckeyes are No. 2 in scoring defense (57.8 ppg.), field goal percentage defense (.379) and turnover margin (plus-3.7) among Big Ten teams. Ohio State is No. 3 in scoring margin (plus-16.8) and three-point field goal percentage (.367) … Since Matta took over the OSU program in 2004-05, the Buckeyes have the best overall record among Big Ten teams (234-68, .775) and are tied with Wisconsin for the best conference record (101-41, .711). Michigan State is third in both categories (219-82, .728 overall; 95-47, .669 in Big Ten play) … Thomas leads the Big Ten in scoring (by more than two full points) at 20.3 points a game. He hasn't been held below 14 points all season, and he's been between 16 and 24 points in each of his last 10 games. He goes into this game with 1,222 points and 33rd on the OSU career scoring list. He could catch and pass No. 32 John Havlicek (1,223), No. 31 Larry Siegfried (1,228) and No. 30 Ronnie Stokes (1,240) in this game.

* Match-Ups To Watch: All eyes will again be on the point guard battle between OSU’s Craft and MSU’s Appling. Craft did the job against Michigan’s ultra talented Trey Burke last Sunday and will need to bring it again to contain the cat quick Appling, who has upped his scoring and assist totals from a year ago.

OSU’s Thomas creates a mismatch problem for the Spartans as neither Nix nor Payne figure to match up with him on the perimeter. The Spartans may have to “go small” and only play one of their two big men at a time (placing that player on Ravenel or Williams inside) and go with Dawson or another wing against Thomas.

* What’s At Stake: If a team expects to win a Big Ten championship, that team usually has to go on the road and steal a win against one of the other top contenders. This is a huge opportunity for Ohio State to do just that and also stay within one game of Big Ten-leading Wisconsin in the loss column. At the same time, you know Izzo does not want to lose a third straight home game to Ohio State.

* What They’re Saying: Thomas on the issues MSU (and others) have in guarding him: "I'm a mismatch nightmare out there. If they go small, I can post them up. Or if they're big, I can go around them or a pick and pop. It's sort of a challenge. They just try to do as much as they can to put different bodies on me. (Opponents) just try to do as much as they can to put different bodies on me, to make sure it's a fresh body or a big body or a small body. They do anything to try and confuse me. But I just take it as a challenge and try to take the right spots and hit the right shots."

Matta on teams’ approach against Thomas: "We have seen a lot of different variations from switching to not switching, to box-and-one, to trying to sit a certain way on him. I give Deshaun a lot of credit. I think he's done a very good job of kind of reading the situation and playing off of it."

Matta on the Breslin Center: "They haven't lost there this year. I would say it's still right there in terms of toughest venues to play in. I don’t like to think about the places where we still have to go. But it's a great college environment."

Matta on his team’s play since the loss at Illinois: "They've been very receptive to what we're trying to do. It's hard to feel good when you're playing in the Big Ten, just because you know everything that lies ahead. Going back to the Illinois game, I like the way our team has responded since then. Hopefully they're intelligent enough or intuitive to know that has to kind of be where you are at all times."

Ravenel on going against the Spartans: “The way Coach Izzo gets his guys playing physical and with the grind-it-out defense, that’s the same thing we do. We try to play physical. Michigan State is probably up there as one of the most physical teams you play against in college basketball. That is a credit to their coaching staff. We have to come ready to play a physical game and not let that get to us.”

* Next On The Docket: Ohio State returns home to host Iowa (12-5, 1-3) at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday night (Big Ten Network). Iowa hosts Wisconsin Saturday night (8 p.m., BTN).

* How We See It: I have covered several OSU-MSU games at the Breslin Center and I can tell you it is one of the toughest places to play in the country. I’d put it a notch behind Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and on the same line as Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse and Indiana’s Assembly Hall in that regard.

I was honestly all set to pick Michigan State to defeat Ohio State, say 60-55, in a low scoring nut cruncher grinder kind of a game. That’s just what you typically see when two Big Ten teams go head-to-head. The scouting and preparation is so good and the defensive intensity of the teams is so high it is just very difficult to get many clean looks.

But as I got into it and looked at last year’s games, I noticed how MSU only had three current players reach double figures in scoring in a single game against OSU last year. That was Payne with 15 and Appling with 14 in the win at OSU and Nix with 10 in the Big Ten tournament win. I just wonder if OSU matches up better against MSU than we might think at first blush.

The key, to me, is Thomas. If he can eclipse, say, 22 points and shoot at a decent percentage, then the Buckeyes could pull this off. But if he is struggling (and that trickles down to Craft, Smith and the rest), then it could be a long day.

I could cop out and say if Thomas plays well, OSU wins. If he doesn’t, they lose. But I won’t do that. Besides that, Big Ten road teams are 5-0 so far this week. (I spot a trend!)

Call me crazy (I think I may be certifiable), but I’ve got it: Ohio State 63, Michigan State 59

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