It is hard to argue against the idea of the Big Ten being the best conference for men’s basketball in recent years.
For two consecutive seasons, the Big Ten has either finished with the most or tied for the most teams in the USA Today top 25. This past season includes five teams representing the conference by the end of the year and three teams finishing in the top seven in the country. Even though the conference’s last championship was in 2000, the continued success is hard to ignore.
Two Big Ten stalwarts, Ohio State and Michigan State, the team which in fact won that national title in 2000, are near the top of the polls again this season, and are set to meet again Tuesday in East Lansing, Mich., for an early conference tilt worthy of attention.
No. 3 OSU (15-0, 2-0) is fresh off an 84-53 drubbing of Nebraska Saturday, a game in which the Buckeyes held only a 10 point advantage at halftime before pulling away late. OSU also took care of business New Year’s Eve at Purdue, winning 78-69.
“Most importantly, we took care of what we needed to do,” OSU coach Thad Matta said after the Nebraska win, referring to his team’s first two conference games.
The Buckeyes forced 13 turnovers against Nebraska, something Cornhusker coach Tim Miles said should help them against the Spartans.
“If they can turn Michigan State over like they turned us over, I think that’s going to cause problems for any team,” Miles said after the game Saturday.
The No. 5 Spartans (13-1, 2-0) lead the nation with 18.9 assists per game, and at the helm is sophomore guard Gary Harris, who is averaging 18.2 points per game. Harris is one of three Spartans who averages at least 15 points per game.
“Our guys have a great appreciation for how good Michigan State is,” Matta said.
Michigan State rose to No. 1 in the nation after beating then-No. 1 Kentucky 78-74 Nov. 12. Tuesday’s game is the first home conference game for the Spartans, who beat both Penn State and Indiana in their first two conference games. OSU is likely to experience a crazy environment at the Breslin Center, where the Spartans and coach Tom Izzo have only lost a total of three games since the start of the 2011-12 season. The Buckeyes were one of those losses, taking down the Spartans, 72-70, March 4, 2012.
“Collectively, we have a very good mindset going into this next game,” OSU freshman forward Marc Loving said after the Nebraska victory. “Michigan State is a very, very tough team and we have to bring our ‘A’ game.”
Matta said Dec. 30 each Big Ten game this season is “going to be a war,” calling winning a conference championship “the hardest thing to do in college basketball.”
“The familiarity of tendencies of teams, of players, all those things come out. You see your opponents so much more now because as you’re watching to get ready for one team you’re thinking, ‘OK, well we’re going to play those guys down the road here.’ And you kinda got an eye on them as well. I think that’s what the difference is. Each game has a huge stake,” Matta said. “Where non-conference, you lose a game and it’s not the end of the world, but at the same token we’re not going to deviate — we’re just going to keep getting better.”
Tipoff between the Buckeyes and Spartans is set for 9 p.m. Tuesday.