When and where: Saturday (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET), Value City Arena (Columbus, Ohio)
Michigan State breakdown: The Spartans have played their best basketball since early losses against North Carolina and Duke dropped them off the radar screen for a while. Like always, Tom Izzo and his team went to work and improved through tough practices and intense competition. This is not Izzo’s best team, but it is a group he relishes going to battle with, and one that he really likes. But with this game against the Buckeyes, Michigan State begins a brutal seven-game stretch in which the Spartans play six teams ranked in the KenPom.com top 50, four of which are games against top 10 teams.
Michigan State, as always, is an outstanding rebounding team that can get second shots and limit your second chances. The Spartans boast a plus-10.8 rebound margin and grab more than 40 percent of their misses. Defensively, the Spartans bend but don’t break and have done a really nice job all season of making it tough to get open, unchallenged shots. MSU leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense in conference games at 38.6 percent, which is just ahead of Ohio State. This is the best help and gap-protection defense the Spartans have played in a few years, and it shows in every defensive metric. On the offensive end, Michigan State is solid but not spectacular. It is a good shooting team, hitting 48 percent of its shots from the floor in conference and more than 38 percent of its 3-point shots.
Ohio State breakdown: The Buckeyes have the best low-post scoring big man in the country in Jared Sullinger, one of the top scoring wings in William Buford and the best on-ball defender in Aaron Craft. Ohio State also has a lefty third scorer in Deshaun Thomas, who put up 30 points this season against South Carolina.
Ohio State’s numbers are surprisingly similar to Michigan State’s. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 49 percent (with Michigan State second) and are second in the league in field goal percentage defense (with Michigan State second) at 38 percent. Earlier in the season, OSU dropped a few games, in large measure because of Sullinger was out with an injury for a time. The key improvement for Ohio State has been on the defensive end. Thad Matta has spent more time on team defense this season than at any time in his career in Columbus. The Buckeyes are rated as the No. 1 overall defense by KenPom.com, and Ohio State is able to force turnovers at a high rate, while limiting fouls and keeping the opponent off the free throw line.
Spartan studs: There is no question that Draymond Green is the heart and soul of the Spartans. Green averages 15.2 points and a league-leading 10.6 rebounds; he averages nearly double figures in defensive rebounds alone. He is a good passer and really works as a defender. Green is playing with a sense of urgency and seems to know that this team has a chance to do something special in the NCAA tournament. Keith Appling has done a great job handling the ball and is averaging nearly 12 points and 3.3 rebounds. Appling has been attacking more off the bounce and has done a solid job. A real key is Branden Dawson, a McDonald’s All-American who is a terrific player and looks like he was chiseled out of stone. Dawson has played very well in Big Ten games and will be crucial if Michigan State is to steal a victory in Columbus. Brandon Wood and Travis Trice have come in and done a nice job for Izzo and have added to Michigan State’s ability to hit perimeter shots and run the team.
Buckeyes’ best: Sullinger is, by a fair margin, the best low-post scorer in the country. In Big Ten games, Sullinger averages 18.6 points and 8.7 rebounds, and he can be the very best player in the country. He, along with Craft, do a magnificent job of filling their roles. Ohio State has been resolute in getting the ball inside to Sullinger, and he was dominant in last Saturday's win over Wisconsin. But Thomas and Buford have become legitimate threats. Lenzelle Smith didn’t make a Namath-like guarantee, but he has played very well over the past three weeks. Smith is a terrific athlete who can really guard. He can also hit open shots.
X-factors: Thomas and Derrick Nix. Thomas is one of the best scorers in the Big Ten. Nix has improved his body, his mobility and his confidence. Nix has been a real factor and it will be interesting to see if he can hang with the Buckeyes and stay out of foul trouble. Both Nix and Adreian Payne will have to keep a body on Sullinger in any attempt to limit him. One thing they cannot do is foul Sullinger and allow him to shoot free throws.
Key stat: Rebounding. In a game that features the top two defenses in Big Ten play, a premium will be on the backboards. Michigan State sends three and sometimes four to the offensive glass to get second shots, and the Spartans do a very good job of limiting you to one shot. These are also the top two rebounding teams in the league.
Who wins: Ohio State, 66-62. With the Buckeyes at home, I favor Brutus. Michigan State cannot afford to worry should it play well and lose. The remaining six games are difficult and important, punctuated by a rematch with Ohio State at the Breslin Center in the regular-season finale. Win or lose, the next game will be really important for Michigan State. For Ohio State, the same schedule applies. The Buckeyes play just as tough of a slate to end the season as MSU, with six of the final seven games against the KenPom.com top 50.