Michigan State's Keith Appling will have a key matchup against Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft tonight. (Michael Hickey / Getty Images)
East Lansing — When Ohio State enters Breslin Center tonight, the national rankings say it’s a big game.
The Buckeyes are No. 3 in the Associated Press and coaches’ poll, while the Spartans are No. 5 in the AP and No. 4 in the coaches.
But that’s just part of it.
Ohio State is undefeated, and Michigan State, which has one loss, was No. 1 for three weeks before falling to North Carolina in early December. Throw in the fact both teams are expected to be in the mix for the Big Ten championship, and the matchup is intriguing.
And three games into conference, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo understands its importance.
“It better not become just another game, otherwise that is disappointing,” he said. “I mean, you don’t want it where it is the biggest game of the year because you tend to learn in this program that you have a lot of big games. … Two top-five teams doesn’t happen very often here, so it’s a special event.”
It’s just the second time two teams in the top five will have played at Breslin Center. Last season, No. 4 Michigan State hosted No. 1 Indiana, with the Hoosiers rallying for a 72-68 victory. It was the ninth time two top-10 teams met in East Lansing, and Michigan State is 6-3 in those games.
The Spartans are entering the game with a bit of momentum, winning their first two Big Ten games on the road and seeing their overall health improve. Gary Harris (right ankle) is close to 100 percent and scored a career-high 26 points in the victory over Indiana, while forward Matt Costello (mononucleosis) has seen his playing time slowly increase after missing four games.
“Obviously you’ve got a typical great Michigan State team that is very experienced,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “From handling their defensive intensity to their transition offense to them rebounding the ball; we have to play great basketball across the board to beat them.”
The Buckeyes already have been playing pretty good basketball, and are one of six undefeated teams remaining in the nation.
But it’s not like they are an offensive juggernaut. Only LaQuinton Ross is in the top 15 in scoring in the Big Ten (13.6 points), and the Buckeyes are ninth in the Big Ten.
Where Ohio State gets it done is on defense, allowing 54.9 points.
“Their defense is definitely what has won for them, and that’s what usually wins for people,” Izzo said.
“Part of it is their length and athleticism and now they’ve got guys coming off the bench that started at times last year. They are a very solid, athletic, long, good defensive team that has an offense that is getting better as the year goes on.”
Matta sees the same thing in the Spartans, who are allowing 64.5 points.
“Michigan State doesn’t get a lot of credit for their defense because they are so explosive offensively,” he said. “They will get some things because they are a great team, but you’ve got to try to make it as difficult as you can in terms of making them earn the points they get and conversely hope you get some easy ones yourself and put together a couple of runs.”
There seems little doubt this matchup will live up to the hype. In the last six meetings, each team has won three, with all being decided by 10 points or fewer.
“When you look at the success Michigan State has had and we’ve had over the course of the last eight years, from that standpoint, we’ve had some battles with them,” Matta said. “We’ve had great games and there have been great players on the court and the fans, in terms of intensity, are right there.”
In the past eight seasons, at least one of the teams has won or shared the conference title six times. In the two seasons they haven’t, they have been in contention.
And while tonight’s game won’t decided the Big Ten champion, it will give a glimpse at which team might have the edge.
“We’ve been fortunate to play in a lot of these games over the last few years,” Matta said. “We have to keep the focus on ourselves, and our guys are smart enough to know we have to play great to have a chance to win.”