February 11, 2012

Here are five quick thoughts on Michigan State's 58-48 win over Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday afternoon, one that pulled the Spartans into a tie with Ohio State for first place in the Big Ten.

1. Is Michigan State a title contender? Would you ever count out Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament? I certainly wouldn't, especially when he is coaching a team that is so "old-school Michigan State." The past couple of seasons, the Spartans seemed to get away from what their program was built on: blue collar defense and unrelenting aggression on the offensive glass. Well, the Spartans are fourth in the country in defensive efficiency and a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. At the risk of sounding cliché', this team is "So Tom Izzo."

But coming into this game, Michigan State wasn't playing with the kind of buzz you typically see from a title contender, and its not hard to figure out why. The Spartans had the reputation for being tough to beat at home but susceptible on the road. That's what happens when you lose at Northwestern, Michigan and Illinois in consecutive road games. As much as anything, this game was a statement. The Spartans toyed with Ohio State on the defensive end of the floor. The Buckeyes execution was far from ideal, but part of the reason they were settling for quick, contested shots was that Michigan State had taken away their will. Being down 10 to the Spartans midway through the second half felt like an insurmountable deficit. That's why the Buckeyes were playing like there were two minutes left, not 12. That says more about this Spartan team than any words I can write.

2. Where's the balance? Jared Sullinger had 17 points and 16 boards against Michigan State, and while those numbers, on the surface, seem terrific, the biggest Buckeye had far from his best game. He shot just 5-15 from the floor and finished with 10 turnovers, giving him the kind of triple-double no one wants. It wasn't just Sullinger, either. Ohio State, as a team, shot 26.4 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 15 times. They hit just two of the 15 threes they attempted. As good as Michigan State's defense was in this game, Ohio State's offensive execution and shot selection was that bad. Contested pullup jumpers, first pass 3-pointers, ill-advised dribble-drives into two defenders, they did it all. This Ohio State group has been known for their patience and their poise, their ability to make the right decisions offensively. That's why they have been in the top-10 of Kenpom's adjusted efficiency ratings for the past three seasons. You never would have guessed that after watching Saturday's game.

3. William Buford needs to wake up. Coming into the season, Buford had an outside chance of becoming Ohio State's all-time leading scorer. That's what happens when you spend two seasons averaging 14.4 points per game at a school that has become synonymous with one-and-done big men. What's more surprising, however, is that it is a player like Buford that had the chance to set a record like that. I don't mean that disrespectfully, but he's never stood out as a star. Buford's spent his entire career as the sidekick, be it to Evan Turner or Sullinger. He's never been the go-to guy, and he doesn't play like it; Buford's bread and butter is running off screens and scoring in catch-and-shoot situations.

This season, however, Buford has looked like he is trying to break that mold. His shooting numbers are down across the board, most notably from beyond the arc, where he regressed from 44.2 percent as a junior to 37.9 percent this year. His turnovers are up, which, when taken in conjunction with his shooting, means that his efficiency rating are down. Buford has been slumping a bit during Big Ten play as well, and while it looked like he broke out of it against Purdue on Tuesday, Michigan State brought out the worst in him. The Buckeyes need Buford to figure it out. When he is struggling to score, it puts that much more pressure on Sullinger to be everything to Ohio State offensively. As good as Sullinger is, we saw tonight what happens when he tries to play outside of himself. You want to avoid that problem with Sullinger? Get Buford on track.

4. Adreian Payne outplayed Sullinger. Payne and Sullinger have known each other for a long time. You see, Payne was a member of the same All-Ohio Red AAU team where Sullinger -- along with Aaron Craft, Jordan Sibert and J.D. Weatherspoon -- played in high school. Payne has also always been the one playing catch-up. Sullinger was the two-time Ohio player of the year, while Payne was a late-blooming recruit whose potential always outweighed his production. As freshmen, Sullinger was an All-American while Payne battled a shoulder injury. Even this season, Sullinger has continued his All-America way while Payne has started to make a name for himself as an MSU role-player, averaging 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest.

But would you believe that on Saturday evening, Payne was the one that outplayed Sullinger? He finished with 15 points on 6-6 shooting from the field to go along with two steals, two blocks and three offensive rebounds. Those 15 points were a career-high. He had a season-high 10 points in just 11 minutes against Ohio State as a freshman. I think someone gets fired up to play an old teammate. This is also coming off a 12-point game in a win over Michigan. With Payne playing this way, it makes MSU that much more dangerous.

5. Where is the Spartans' point guard play? Everything you read here needs to be taken with a very important grain of salt: Aaron Craft, Mr. Turnometer himself, plays for Ohio State. He is quite possibly the best on-ball defender in the country, and he has made life miserable for many a point guard in his career. That said, the day that Keith Appling had will be easily forgettable. He finished with 14 points on 4-10 shooting, which isn't terrible, but he also added seven turnovers without handing out a single assist. To be frank, the lack off assists is not that concerning. Michigan State's Draymond Green is one of the nation's best distributors, regardless of position. He can facilitate an offensive attack. The turnovers, however, are concerning. Few teams are going to play as poorly as Ohio State did on the offensive end of the floor. If Buford and Thomas are hitting shots for the Buckeyes, those turnovers take on an entirely different meaning.

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