It’s officially the home stretch. The regular season ends in 11 days and No. 4 Ohio State (18-5) has three games in that span. First up is the final road game against Michigan State (11-9). The Buckeyes then have a quick turnaround before their next game, returning home to host No. 9 Iowa on Sunday afternoon.
Location: East Lansing, Michigan
Time: 9 p.m.
TV Network: ESPN
Radio Network: 97.1 The Fan
Sunday’s rivalry game between Ohio State and Michigan was an instant classic and has been widely claimed as the best college basketball game so far this season. The Buckeyes and the Wolverines went toe-to-toe for a full 40 minutes and featured a pair of high-powered offenses. Michigan’s size gave them the slight edge, though, and Ohio State ran out of gas toward the end. However, the Buckeyes proved that they are legitimate national title contenders, not pretenders, and that they can set themselves up to beat the best teams in the country.
Ohio State Overview
One thing Ohio State has done following a loss this year (and those losses have been rare of late) is bounce back and win the next game. And they’ve won convincingly, by an average of 16.5 points in those games.
Before Sunday though, the Buckeyes hadn’t lost in over a month, so will they be able to tap back into that bounce-back mentality from earlier this season? Head coach Chris Holtmann always has the team focused on one game at a time, so my guess is that Ohio State will be locked in and ready to go come Thursday.
Duane Washington Jr. made for must-watch television over the last week and was appropriately named Co-Big Ten Player of the Week as a result. He averaged 26.5 points in the last two games, which included a career-high 30 points against the Wolverines with the college basketball nation watching. Despite some streaky play this season, he’s peaking at the right time and playing his best basketball with some of the Buckeyes’ biggest games still looming. His performance is key to any deep run Ohio State is hoping to make in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
E.J. Liddell and Washington make for one heck of a combined scoring punch with Liddell shining just as much as his older teammate. The sophomore has averaged over 20 points himself over the last three games, he’s showed up and showed out in the biggest games and it’s hard to remember a time this season when he wasn’t impacting the game, even when his shot wasn’t falling. Liddell scored 20 points in the teams’ two previous games, so he’ll draw a lot of attention again in the second matchup.
C.J. Walker is on some kind of run right now. In the nine games he’s reached double figures so far this season, five of them have come recently, including four straight. The senior guard notched a season-high 15 points in the Michigan game, putting up a season-high-tying nine field goal attempts and making a season-high six of them. He was pivotal in the big game and the Buckeyes will certainly look for his leadership heading into the postseason.
Michigan State Overview
While the Spartans aren’t having the season that they expected, you can’t ever count out a team coached by Tom Izzo. You won’t find Michigan State anywhere on the latest projected bracket so this team is on a mission: make some statement wins and dare the committee to leave the Spartans out of the tournament for the first time since 1997. A win against projected No. 1 seed in the Buckeyes would go a long way for this mission.
I watched the Michigan State-Indiana game Saturday afternoon and I was impressed by the Spartans grit in their comeback victory. Then, they held a 17-point lead over No. 5 Illinois early in the second half and held on for a resume-boosting victory on Tuesday night. This is a team that shouldn’t be slept on right now.
Michigan State relies a lot on Aaron Henry and Joshua Langford to lead an otherwise-young Spartans’ team. Henry was the workhorse in Saturday’s win over the Hoosiers, playing 40 minutes en route to a career-high 27 points and, while Langford isn’t as much of a scoring threat as his teammate, he still balances out the offensive attack. The two combined for 24 of Michigan State’s 62 points in the first game against Ohio State.
Izzo has been playing around with the Spartans’ lineup lately so it’s not as easy to guess the starting five as with other teams. However, one other player to keep an eye on is Gabe Brown. The junior forward missed the first game with the Buckeyes as he was recovering from COVID-19, but he’s been stellar of late, averaging double-digits over the last three games. He cracked Michigan State’s starting lineup against the Fighting Illini, although he only scored three points, so you might find him in the first five again on Thursday.
Ohio State Keys
- D-Fence *clap clap* - Ohio State’s defensive efficiency was pretty darn impressive in its first game against Michigan State. The Buckeyes had a tough showing against Michigan on Sunday, giving up a season-high 92 points. While they’ve allowed 80+ points four other times so far this season and won, Ohio State needs to tighten up on defense and find a way to get back to where they were against their other neighbors from the north.
- Avoid getting bit by the injury bug - It feels like the Buckeyes have been banged up all season long, but the injuries are starting to get a little worrisome with the postseason right around the corner. Musa Jallow sat against the Wolverines and Ohio State could have really used his presence on the floor, especially on the defensive end. Kyle Young, Seth Towns and Walker each still have nagging injuries and, with only two days between Thursday and another top-10 matchup against Hawkeyes, there isn’t too much more rest on the horizon until early next week. The Buckeyes need to play smart and avoid a big blow against the Spartans.
- Get Ahrens going - One of the most notable absences on Sunday was Justin Ahrens. His 3-point shooting has been clutch all season long but he went 0-for against Michigan in a game where one or two triples could have made all the difference for the Buckeyes. It’ll be beneficial for Ahrens to have a short memory and for Ohio State to get him going early.
Matchup to Watch
Michigan State’s Aaron Henry vs. Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell - Depending on the starting lineup that Izzo throws out there (10 different Spartans have registered a start this season), this could be a best-on-best matchup featuring each team’s leading scorer. Henry touches the ball a lot and averages over 10 field-goal attempts a game so Liddell will need to stay on his toes on defense. Liddell holds his own well on the offensive end of the floor so this should be fun to watch.
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