East Lansing — As Michigan State continues its push to finish in the top four of the Big Ten while further strengthening its NCAA Tournament resume, it finds itself in a familiar position.
For the second straight week, Michigan State takes on one of the hottest teams in the conference when it faces Ohio State tonight at Value City Arena.
Last week, it was Wisconsin that came to East Lansing riding a seven-game winning streak. Michigan State ended that with a 69-57 victory. And after taking the weekend off, the Spartans face a Buckeyes team that has won four in a row.
It’s a young team that has a victory over Kentucky early this season, but few other feathers in its cap. And with an RPI ranking of No. 75, Ohio State is looking for a signature win — or more, considering it plays Michigan State again next week and also faces Iowa to close the regular season.
“This is a very big game for them,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “That’s the problem when you get to this time of year, depending on who you catch. We catch them twice in three games for them.
“I think right now these are big games for Ohio State; they’re big games for Michigan State. They’re a little younger, we’re a little more experienced, but those young guys are talented guys and I think (Ohio State coach) Thad (Matta) has done a good job with them. They were a little inconsistent early; they’re becoming more consistent.”
Ohio State (18-10, 10-5 Big Ten) enters the game in fourth place in the Big Ten, a spot Michigan State (22-5, 9-5) is eager to take over.
And while a shot at the conference title is a long one, it hasn’t stopped the Spartans from playing some of their best basketball of the season. Michigan State has won six of the last seven, with the only loss coming by one point in overtime at Purdue.
“We just try to focus on what we’re playing for and we’re playing for more than beating Ohio State on their win streak,” senior Denzel Valentine said. “We’re playing to get in the top four, maybe even to win to share the Big Ten title. You never know, things can play out and we might be able to get a share.
“They’re going to come out and be aggressive because they’re hungry. We know that. This is going to be a big win for them if they do beat us to get in the NCAA Tournament. But it’s a big game for us also to get that top four seed in the Big Ten tournament and later on in the NCAA Tournament.”
Matta said he hasn’t allowed himself to examine the difficulty of Ohio State’s final three games and has no intention of thinking ahead to what a win tonight might do for his team’s Tournament hopes.
“We’ve got a heck of an opponent,” Matta said. “Michigan State, now that they’re healthy, is as good as anybody in the country, there’s no doubt about that. To think ahead or look behind wouldn’t do us much good. We’re going to focus on us and having a great practice and I just want to go out and play well (tonight).”
Matta believes Michigan State is playing well, and the stats would suggest the same thing. It’s something Izzo would agree to, begrudgingly.
He still, however, sees much more growth coming from the Spartans.
“I feel good that we’re making progress in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten where we need to be yet. But I look at 22-5, I’d say I would turn that card in at the beginning of the year.
“When I look at how it was, sometimes I go to bed and say, ‘Why did we let this happen and that happen?’ But it’s what’s happened, and of those five losses — three of them have been one-point losses — so is this team doing about as well as I thought it could do? (It’s) probably ahead of where I thought it would be.”
Michigan State at Ohio State
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Records: No. 6 Michigan State 22-5 (9-5 Big Ten), Ohio State 18-10 (10-5)
Outlook: The teams meet twice in the final two weeks of the season. Ohio State travels to East Lansing for the regular-season finale March 5. ... The last 12 meetings between the teams have been decided by 10 points or less. … Michigan State has won three of the last four in the series, but has lost two straight in Columbus.