COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – For a change, Michigan State and Ohio State aren’t playing for a trophy.
After contesting Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles in two of their last three meetings, there’ll be no hardware up for grabs when the fourth-ranked Spartans square off with the No. 18 Buckeyes on Sunday.
That does not mean there is nothing on the line.
“It’s like there’s always a trophy on the line every time you play one of the top-tier teams in this conference,” Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “It’s clutch time now. It’s gut-check (time) now. Now, toward the end of the season, the good teams step up and make big plays and win games. That’s what this game is going to be about.”
Coach Tom Izzo’s team (22-5, 11-3) needs a victory to remain within reach of No. 1-ranked Big Ten leader Indiana (24-3, 12-2).
The Buckeyes (19-7, 9-5) are trying to maintain their two-game grip on fifth place and cement a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. They can also stretch coach Thad Matta’s string of 20-win seasons to a perfect 13 for 13.
A loss for either creates headaches down the road.
No matter what happens, there’s mutual respect. The two programs have fought on equal terms for almost a decade.
“Coming in here nine years ago, Michigan State is a program I looked at and said, `Jeez, how do they do it?”‘ Matta said. “I have the utmost respect for what they had done. The biggest tell-all is just standing the test of time in college basketball. It’s a lot easier said than done.”
Championships have shadowed the series in recent years.
With Matta at the helm, the Buckeyes have won at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title five of the last seven years. They’ve also played in the conference tournament championship game the last four seasons. Twice they’ve made it to the Final Four.
Michigan State, of course, has been a steady national contender throughout Izzo’s 18 seasons shepherding the program made famous by Earvin “Magic” Johnson and curmudgeonly coach Jud Heathcote.
Izzo and the Spartans captured an NCAA title in 2000, and have also won seven Big Ten regular-season and three conference tournament titles while making 15 straight NCAA tournament appearances. They’ve been to six Final Fours.
The Spartans won at home on Jan. 19, 59-56, when Keith Appling hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left and the Buckeyes mishandled a chance to tie.
“They’re a better team I think, in some ways, and they’re a different team in other ways,” Izzo said, comparing the Buckeyes then and now. “They’ve still got one of the best defensive guards in the country (Aaron Craft) and they still have (Deshaun) Thomas, who is capable of getting 30 any night you play him.”
The Spartans are coming off a 72-68 home loss to Indiana on Sunday which left them in chase mode heading into the stretch run. After coming to Columbus, they take a week off before closing out the season at Michigan followed by home games with Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Matta’s team has had a succession of highs and lows. Thomas leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20 points a game, but the Buckeyes have been erratic at times.
They were humiliated 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Sunday, but rebounded to pound Minnesota 71-45 on Wednesday night.
A year ago, the Buckeyes closed the regular season at Breslin Center, with William Buford flipping in a high-arching jumper with a second left for a 72-70 win that gave them a share of the Big Ten title with the Spartans and Michigan.
A week later, the teams met again in the Big Ten tournament finale and the Spartans played one of their finest games of the year in beating Ohio State 68-64 behind Brandon Wood’s season-high 21 points.
It seems every meeting comes down to a wild finish.
“Fortunately, both of us over the last eight years have been right there,” Matta said. “What they have built there, just in terms of the environment that they have, I think we’re definitely closing in on that.”
The rivalry has blossomed because of the two coaches.
Izzo is 434-174 (.714) overall and 207-93 (.690) in Big Ten play. He’s 21-11 against Ohio State, but was 12-3 against the Buckeyes before Matta came into the league.
Matta has a career record of 342-103 (.769) overall, 240-72 (.769) at Ohio State and 107-45 (.704) in Big Ten games. He is just 8-9 against Izzo and the Spartans, however.
Both sides know what to expect.
“It should be a very scrappy game,” Appling said. “Those guys are going to come out playing hard and we’re going to try to match their intensity. Hopefully we’ll come out with a win.”
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