Basketball Preview: Ohio State Defending Home Court Against Reeling Michigan State

By Colin Hass-Hill on January 31, 2021 at 7:15 am
Chris Holtmann and Duane Washington Jr.

A month and a half ago, the weekly Associated Press top-25 poll dropped with Michigan State steadfastly at No. 4. Voters only put Gonzaga, Baylor and Iowa – which now have a combined 43-3 record – above Tom Izzo’s group. At that point, the Spartans were riding high with a 6-0 record that featured a road win at Duke and home victory against Notre Dame.

Since that day, Michigan State has won two games. It endured a three-game losing streak, beat Nebraska and Rutgers, lost to Purdue by two points, spent several weeks sidelined due to a COVID-19 outbreak, then got dumped 67-37 by Rutgers in East Lansing. 

Who Where When TV
Michigan State (8-5, 2-5) Columbus, Ohio (Schottenstein Center) 1 p.m. CBS

No, it’s not been a fun time to be a Spartan. Ohio State intends to keep it that way.

The Buckeyes welcome Michigan State to Columbus on Sunday when they’ll face off at the Schottenstein Center at 1 p.m. The game will be broadcasted on CBS.

“I really believe we're going to see Michigan State at their best,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said on Friday. “There's been very few coaches to get their teams to play as well into February and March as Tom. I know he and his staff are going to have them ready. Obviously they're a team that was ranked as high as I think fourth in the country to start the season.”

Not since Jan. 5 Michigan State has won a game. In the three and a half weeks following that day, the Buckeyes have won five of their six games. They ride a two-game winning streak, beating Wisconsin and Penn State after falling by two at Purdue.

Recent results don’t mean, at least in Holtmann’s mind, that Ohio State will take Michigan State any less seriously than usual.

“(Our players) know the caliber of players there,” Holtmann said. “Rocket Watts is a phenomenal player. Aaron Henry's tremendous. Obviously they're bringing (Joey) Hauser along with the transfer. They've got great respect for, I think, the talent, obviously the coaching. They know they're a very good team. They won at Duke. They beat a Notre Dame team early in the year that we played and they beat them handily. It's a conversation we'll have, but it's not like I'm going to have to sell that. They know the caliber of team that Michigan State is.”

Three Things To Watch

Winnable Matchups At Guard, Wing And Forward?

Too often in recent years, Michigan State has seemingly had the edge on Ohio State in talent at most position groups. Last season, the Spartans could have made a solid case that Cassius Winston, Aaron Henry and Xavier Tillman were the best all-around guard, wing and forward, respectively. 

This time, Ohio State could have the edge.

If Holtmann wanted to, he could make an argument for Duane Washington Jr., Justice Sueing and E.J. Liddell being the best guard, wing and forward, respectively, between the two teams. Sure, it’s not clear cut. But the point is simple: After dueling with talented veterans propelling a national contender the prior couple of seasons, the Buckeyes shouldn’t be at a top-of-the-roster talent disadvantage on Sunday.

What seemed like a potentially deadly three-headed monster of Henry, Joey Hauser and Rocket Watts hasn't turned into what Izzo hoped.

Henry is the leading scorer at 13.4 points per game on a team that ranks dead last in the Big Ten in adjusted offensive efficiency, turnover rate and 2-point percentage within conference play. Henry shoots 42.8 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from 3-point range, and he averages an unsightly 3.5 assists compared to 3.2 turnovers. Hauser, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Marquette, manages 11.3 points and 7.5 rebounds in 22.8 minutes per game. Notably, he can stretch the floor, shooting 35.3 percent from 3. Watts, who's putting up 9.2 points per game, has struggled with efficiency, hitting 36 percent of shots and 27.9 percent of triples.

The time for Ohio State’s best players to show they’re the best players on the court has arrived.

Not-So-Great Recent History Against Michigan State

What happened the past two years shouldn’t affect the action inside the Schottenstein Center on Sunday. But Holtmann hasn’t forgotten the recent largely one-sided battles.

After upsetting the Spartans in Year 1 of Holtmann’s tenure, the Buckeyes have lost all four games – twice on the road, once at home and once in the Big Ten tournament.

“We expect a heck of a battle, much like every Big Ten game,” Holtmann said. “But obviously with Michigan State, they always present a physical element to how they play and a mental and physical toughness. Quite honestly, we have struggled with that against them the last year or so.”

After dropping four straight, Ohio State has a chance to start a streak of its own this weekend.

Turnovers: An Area To Watch Closely

Here's an insane statistic: Only just barely did Michigan State's field-goal percentage (33.3) outpace its turnover rate (32.3) against Rutgers. In other words, the Spartans made a shot about as frequently that night as they turned the ball over. Suboptimal, to say the least.

Some good news for Izzo's bunch? No team in the Big Ten forces turnovers at a lower rate than Ohio State (13.9 percent in conference games). That's a positive for the six(!) Michigan State players who higher individual turnover rates than everybody on Ohio State's roster not named Jimmy Sotos, who remains unavailable for this game.

"I think we're going to play the way we play," Holtmann said. "I think some of that is we haven't been active and some of it is a little bit how our defense is built. Our first couple years here, we were good at turning teams over defensively – pretty good and consistently pretty good. I think there's a give and take there because if you're trying to turn people over, occasionally – more than occasionally – you can give up and create offense for the other team. So I think there's a balance there with how you want to play. I think in general, we can be more active than what we're being right now. But we can't create offense. But I think there's no question we can be more active."

The other end of the court is a bit of a different story.

Within Big Ten play, the Spartans rank third in opponent turnover rate (18.2 percent) – though it should be noted they're 10th in steal percentage (6.7) and first in non-steal turnover percentage (11.5). Aaron Henry leads the way with 1.5 steals per game.

For the bulk of the season, Ohio State has done well do avoid giving the ball up, ranking 28th in turnover rate (15.8 percent). But it's coming off a season-high 17 turnovers against Penn State. Walker, Liddell, Sueing and Washington each committed at least three. Even with the way Michigan State has played, Ohio State can't afford a repeat of those issues on Sunday.

"Bottom line is we just have to do a better job, and it begins with me," Holtmann said. "I think we've got to watch film, and we will today here and address it. There's some you're going to have in a game like that. Just the nature of the way they play. And there was certainly times where we took advantage of their pressure and their gambling – a number of times – but we weren't able to make sound enough decisions with the ball consistently enough."

Prediction: Ohio State 78, Michigan State 72

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