Early in the season, many people probably had tonight’s game circled on Ohio State’s schedule.
Michigan State was ranked No. 2 in the initial ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ poll, and with the Buckeyes at No. 5, the Spartans’ visit to Columbus had the potential to be one of OSU’s biggest games of the year.
Although the Buckeyes have held up their end of the bargain, MSU is 14-10 overall and 6-6 in Big Ten play. As it stands now, the Spartans are still fighting to make it into the NCAA Tournament, and a win at No. 2 OSU would go a long way to getting them there.
With several returning players, coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans were widely considered to be one of the premier championship contenders in the nation. But with inconsistent play and off-the-court issues, including the dismissal of junior guard Korie Lucious, MSU is far from a title contender.
The Spartans, who have won a share of the past two Big Ten regular season titles, in addition to making appearances in the past two Final Fours, got off to a rough start to their non-conference schedule, which included losses to Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse and Texas — all of whom are ranked in the Top 25 of both polls.
MSU’s woes carried into its Big Ten schedule, with the Spartans dropping games to Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. Despite MSU’s struggles, OSU senior guard Jon Diebler is expecting to get the Spartans’ best shot tonight.
Regardless of MSU’s struggles, however, senior guard Jon Diebler said OSU isn’t taking the game against the Spartans lightly.
“Michigan State is a very good basketball team,” Diebler said. “I know they’ve probably received a lot of crap for how they were ranked early on and how they’re doing now, but they’ve got great players on their team and a great coach.”
Izzo, the coach whom Diebler and others spoke highly of, is a reason people aren’t quick to count MSU out. Senior guard Kalin Lucas is a former Big Ten Player of the Year.
That talent and experience make the Spartans dangerous despite their less-than-stellar record, OSU coach Thad Matta said.
“You just look at what these guys on this team have accomplished in their time there; I think they’re a great basketball team, I really do,” Matta said. “You look at coach Izzo and, I mean, he’s been in the league longer than anybody, and his record speaks for itself. You know, I’m glad we only play them once this year.”
Coming off a loss
After starting the season with 24 straight wins, OSU is now forced to recover and play with a losing streak on the line for the first time all season. Though there is hardly any shame in losing at Wisconsin (19-5, 9-3 Big Ten), the Buckeyes are no longer No. 1 in the country and, perhaps, have something to prove for the first time in several weeks.
Junior guard William Buford said his team has recovered from the defeat, but it hasn’t forgotten it.
“I think everybody is a little bit more focused after we lost,” Buford said. “Nobody on the team likes to lose, so I think we’re more focused in.”
Matta said although a loss obviously wasn’t what he had planned, he expects his team to be just fine moving forward.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t the first loss of my career,” he said. “You have to pick yourself up, and we have another really good basketball team coming in here tomorrow night, so we have to get ourselves ready to go.
“My father told me a long time ago, ‘If you die with every loss and go crazy with every win, it’s going to be a rough life in coaching, so you just sort of live with it and get these guys ready to go.'”
Big Ten title race
With six games remaining in the regular season, the Buckeyes sit atop the conference standings. Despite the loss on Saturday, OSU is still two games ahead of Wisconsin and Purdue (20-5, 9-3 Big Ten).
The Buckeyes say they haven’t lost sight of their goal, and tonight’s game against the Spartans is an important step toward achieving it.
“This is another game, and we’re trying to win the Big Ten,” Diebler said. “Our mindset hasn’t changed.”
With the dreams of an undefeated season gone, Diebler said his team’s sights are set, and have been set all season, squarely on a conference championship.
“We didn’t come here, into this season, to go undefeated,” he said. “Obviously it would have been nice, but we’re still two games up on second place in the Big Ten and that’s our first goal, to win the Big Ten. Yes, we lost. Yes, it’s not acceptable to lose, but it’s not the end of the world. We still have six more games left and we’re sitting in a pretty good position right now.”
The Buckeyes’ and Spartans’ first and only meeting of the season is scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.
Ben Axelrod contributed to this story.