COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been through this all before. Big weekend in the Big Ten. Big game against a big opponent.
On and on.
So, you can understand that he was cool and composed when asked about Saturday’s conference clash in Columbus. It’s the No. 11 Spartans against No. 3 Ohio State, and all that goes with it in February.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but this is a fun time,” Izzo said. “This is a big game and we’ve put ourselves in a position to have a big game.”
Even though the Buckeyes (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten) will still have six conference tilts left after the game, coach Thad Matta knows a head-to-head matchup with the closest pursuer is important because of the balance throughout the league.
“From top to bottom, in the years I’ve been in the Big Ten, this is probably as good as it’s been,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a cut above, (but) the parity this year is just incredible.”
The Spartans (18-5, 7-3) and Buckeyes can attest to that, as they had to overcome struggles against lower teams this week leading to the showdown.
Purdue on Tuesday became only the third opponent during the Buckeyes’ 39-game home winning streak to lead in the second half. The Boilermakers pulled into a tie with five minutes left, before losing 87-84.
The next night, last-place Penn State trailed 52-47 with nine minutes remaining before Michigan State pulled away from the visitors for a 77-57 victory.
Afterward, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers, whose Nittany Lions lost by 24 at Ohio State on Jan. 25, spoke about the power of this Saturday showdown … and he’s not even a part of it.
“It’s going to be a great game,” he said. “Two different styles. It’s going to come down to the wire.” Purdue coach Matt Painter, perhaps trying to set a tone for his team in the future, thinks the officials may have a say in it.
“They’re both tough teams and physical,” he said. “It depends on how it gets called. I think that’ll be really important how the game is called.”
If it’s a typical, Big Ten game, there will be a lot of physical play. Matta said it’s crucial for his players to gauge the officiating early.
“The hard part is not deviating from what you’re trying to accomplish in terms of both offensively and defensively,” he said. “One of the things we pride ourselves on, is playing hard without fouling. That’s a slogan we use.
“We view fouling as a sign of weakness.”
The Buckeyes rank 30th nationally with an average of 15.8 fouls called on them while Michigan State is 123rd (18.2).
“Defense is going to be huge; their defense, our defense,” Ohio State sophomore guard Aaron Craft said. “It’s definitely going to be a big key to the game. Whoever can score the most off their defense and try to limit the other team is going to be successful.”
For the Buckeyes, that means containing senior forward Draymond Green, the Spartans’ leader in scoring (15.2) and rebounding (10.6).
“Draymond is a tremendous basketball player,” Matta said. “There’s so many things he can do that can affect the outcome of the game. For us guarding him, it’s going to take five guys and having the awareness of where he is.”
Michigan State will try to control Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger (17.4 points, 9.0 rebounds). To do so, Craft expects the Spartans to indeed be physical with him.
“The beating he takes on regular basis, most of it is within the context of the game,” he said. “And most of the time, they’re not fouls and they’re something you have to deal with. Jared has handled it really well.”
With so much at stake, the teams know that momentarily lapses can be critical.
“We’ve almost got to play mistake-free and do all the intangibles,” Michigan State sophomore guard Keith Appling said. “We have to play Spartan basketball for 40 minutes.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)