Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
What has become the de facto bout for the Big Ten championship might feel a bit different when the Ohio State men’s basketball team and No. 4 Michigan State meet Sunday.
While this year’s contest might be as important as ever, it holds different stakes-at least for the No. 18-ranked Buckeyes (19-7, 9-5 Big Ten).
“It always feels like a trophy is on the line when we play one of the top tier teams in this conference,” said OSU junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. “Michigan State is a very good team that always makes deep runs in the tournament. When you play against good teams like Michigan State, it’s always a good feeling.”
And while the magnitude of what could happen in the game may make the contest feel as if a conference title is on the line, that sentiment really only holds true for the Spartans (22-5, 11-3 Big Ten).
Rather than trying for its fourth consecutive league title, Thad Matta’s crew finds itself fifth in the Big Ten behind Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Not unexpectedly, the Buckeyes have suffered losses to each of the teams that sit ahead of them. And a loss to the Spartans would likely slam the door shut on any outside shot of capturing the league’s crown.
OSU’s first tilt with the Spartans ended in a 59-56 defeat, as sophomore guard Shannon Scott’s wild 3-point shot fell harmlessly back to the hardwood as the game clock expired.
The loss, which came after knocking off previously undefeated Michigan a week later, is one of the Buckeyes’ seven setbacks in eight contests against ranked opponents-the win against the Wolverines being the lone triumph.
Sunday’s game against Michigan State offers a chance to improve that record.
Another signature win-any win-Smith Jr. said, is needed “badly.”
“We need wins immediately. Any win we get now, no matter who we play, is going to be a good thing,” he said. “To beat a ranked opponent would mean so much more.”
Playing the Spartans often offers teams-including OSU-a chance to test themselves against arguably the league’s most consistent squad in the last 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.
Matta might know that challenge better than most, considering his Buckeyes have challenged the Spartans for the Big Ten championship and jockeyed with Tom Izzo’s squad as the league’s most dominant squad.
Bearing in mind that in Izzo’s 18 years at the helm in East Lansing, Mich., the Spartans have captured a national championship and seven Big Ten championships in addition to six Final Four appearances and 15 straight NCAA tournament invites.
“I have the utmost respect for what they had done,” Matta said. “The biggest tell-all is just standing the test of time in college basketball. It’s a lot easier said than done.”
Matta, though, has flirted with similar success.
In his tenure in Columbus, he has taken the Buckeyes to two Final Fours, made six NCAA tournament appearances and won five Big Ten titles.
Often, matchups between OSU and the Spartans have been for the league’s crown.
Consider last season, when the Buckeyes clinched a share of the Big Ten championship with a win at the Breslin Center thanks to a last-second shot by former guard William Buford.
This season is a different tale-one that likely won’t end with such heroics playing for the conference’s biggest prize.
After losing three of its last four games, OSU rallied to beat Minnesota, 71-45, Wednesday night.
But Smith Jr. said a 22-point loss to Wisconsin in Madison on Feb. 17 still burns in the back of his head.
It serves, he said, as a reminder of what can happen if the Buckeyes don’t come to play in a league that’s arguably the most rugged in the country.
“I’m pretty sure (Matta) still remembers it and he’s not going let it go,” he said. “I’m not going let it go, and I don’t expect anybody else to let it go.”
Whether that outlook is conducive down the season’s stretch might be apparent against the Spartans.
OSU is set to play Michigan State Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.