As Thad Matta considered what wisdom spillover he’s enjoyed from Tom Izzo during a decade in the Big Ten, Ohio State’s coach cited the usual bromides. How Izzo fashioned Michigan State into a juggernaut, how he did it the right way, how he offers a morsel of knowledge here and there about how the profession is.
Matta wasn’t providing specifics until, by accident, he couldn’t help himself. He considered a question about how the programs’ matchups affect recruiting and, after a laugh, he answered with a lesson that Izzo taught him: Most of the time, the Spartans get who they’re supposed to get and the Buckeyes get who they’re supposed to get. By January 2014, the insight was so deeply embedded that Matta didn’t even recognize it until it surfaced.
“When you go into a game and you’re coaching against a Hall of Fame coach,” Matta said, “I enjoy the handshake.”
It probably is the best rivalry in the best conference in America at the moment and may well stay that way for years now, only it’s apparently absent any contempt or grudges or ancillary angst. Which may or may not make it a rivalry in the generally accepted sense. But the stakes suggest everyone pay heed: On Tuesday, Michigan State hosts Ohio State in the first meeting ever with both programs ranked in the top 5.
It’s the second time ever that East Lansing, Mich., has hosted a top 5 showdown. (Second time in two years, actually, after Indiana’s visit last season.) And everyone’s just happy to be here. “Well, I just got done watching our game against them last year in the Big Ten Tournament, and if I wasn’t coaching, I’d say, god, that was a heck of a game,” Izzo said of a 61-58 semifinal loss. “There have been some great games. Most of them have gone down to the wire. It’s been a good, clean, hard-fought rivalry. When you’ve been able to maintain some semblance of consistency, different teams become rivalries in different ways.
“Rivalries are built on two good teams that are playing, that are playing for something. And us and Ohio State have played for a lot of Big Ten championships the last six, seven years, or at least have been right in the hunt.”
At the risk of sounding mawkish, and assuming there’s not an undercurrent of seething contempt between both parties that no one acknowledges publicly, like families biting tongues over a holiday dinner -- there’s some purity in that. No contrived bitterness. Nothing personal. Just strict, unremitting desire to be better than the other guys.
Wisconsin, of course, merits inclusion when discussing more or less consistently top-shelf results in the Big Ten. And Michigan State and Ohio State haven’t always matched each other with Izzo and Matta on the sidelines, but it’s been close. In eight of the last 10 seasons, one or the other has landed in first or second place. In three of the past four years, the Spartans and Buckeyes tied for first or second at the end of the regular season.
“The funny thing -- what I’ve found in 10 years in the Big Ten, everybody’s a rival,” Matta said. “You look at the success Michigan State has had and we’ve had over the course of the last eight years, we’ve had some tremendous battles with them, great games, there have been great players on the court, fans are always where they are in terms of intensity. I would say they are right there (as a rival).”
On Tuesday night, expect each team to be right there, close enough to count the pores on their cheeks. Ohio State is the nation’s No. 1 team in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 85 points per 100 possessions, according to kenpom.com. Michigan State is No. 10 at 91.2. It’s a fascinating collision of Keith Appling and Garry Harris seemingly about to enter full bloom in the Spartans backcourt while the Buckeyes counter with perhaps the nation’s best defensive guard tandem in Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott. It’s Izzo trying to settle on a rotation and settle into Final Four contender mode and Matta determining if he’s going to get consistent production from the bench to go from a formidable team to a freakish one.
“They’re going to get some things because they’re great team,” Matta said. “But you’ve got to try to make it as difficult as you can in terms of making them earn the points they get. Conversely you try to get a couple easy ones yourself and get on a couple runs.”
It’s also early, there’s also the crawl across barbed wire ahead in the rest of the Big Ten slate, and the teams won’t meet again until – what else – the regular season finale for both on March 9. “It better not become another game otherwise that’s disappointing,” Izzo said. “Yet again, you don’t want it to be where it’s the biggest game of the year, because you do have to learn in this program you’re going to have a lot of big games.