Were it not for a full slate of games at Versailles High School on Saturday afternoon, there might have only been a handful of people left in the town of roughly 2,700 about 100 miles west of Columbus.
Instead, there could have been an impressive caravan heading to Value City Arena to watch No. 14 Ohio State as it hosts No. 8 Michigan State at noon in an early Big Ten showdown.
Even if the local games will keep some folks at home, there will still be a significant group headed to see some of the town’s most notable athletes — Kyle Ahrens, a junior guard at Michigan State, and his brother, Justin, a freshman guard at Ohio State.
“It’s going to be something else,” Kyle said after Michigan State’s practice on Thursday. “In my hometown my aunt put a thing on Facebook for tickets like a few months ago to get a count. They sold like 500 tickets that she got. There’s a lot of hometown support, so we’re really excited about it.”
Kyle said there was even talk about changing the date of Saturday’s games at Versailles High, but that move proved unfeasible. Instead, he said the TVs outside the gym will be tuned to what’s happening in Columbus.
It’s a big deal to the small town but trying to gauge how big this is for both Kyle and Justin is difficult. The only time they’ve played together was during Kyle’s senior year in high school when Justin was a freshman.
“We’ve been texting a lot lately,” Kyle said. “It’s just crazy it’s all about to happen. We’ve been waiting for this moment for a couple of years, to be on the same court at two big-time, Big Ten schools. It’s kind of a surreal moment for our family.”
It’s a moment made even more special for Kyle, who is expected to get his second straight start and sixth of the season as Joshua Langford remains questionable with an ankle injury. That Kyle is playing a key role, let alone starting, speaks to the perseverance he’s shown.
Hampered by injuries his entire career, dating to his junior season in high school, some wondered whether Kyle would end up transferring after missing all of last season with a foot injury. Instead, he stuck it out and is now the player Tom Izzo and the Michigan State coaching staff always expected he’d be when healthy.
“He’s a good athlete and he keeps working on his ball handling skills,” Izzo said. “He’s a good player, we said that from the beginning. He’s a good player that’s just had a lot of bad luck.”
The patience and continued work ethic Kyle has shown in his four seasons with the Spartans is something he’s trying to impart on his younger brother.
Justin Ahrens, like many freshmen, is seeing sporadic playing time, averaging 5.4 minutes in seven games.
“That’s where I’ve helped him a lot,” Kyle said. “When we went home for Christmas, that’s what we talked about. He’s doing what I did, but he’s getting more time than I did my freshman year. It’s not much time right now but they said his role will start getting bigger as time goes on. He’s spending more time in the weight room, but he’s on the right track.”
This week, though, the advice has basically become trash talk between the siblings. It’s something that will likely continue when they hit the court, and if things work out, they could even guard each other.
Either way, it won’t be tough to spot the Ahrens family on Saturday. Kyle said his cousin made up shirts that combined the schools’ logos with the Ahrens name on them, but it violated an obscure NCAA rule, so the idea was shelved.
“Apparently my cousin made the shirts and had all the orders and stuff — hundreds of orders — but the NCAA said it’s not allowed, splitting the shirt with our name and a college logo," Kyle said. "So, I think they’ll just wear an Ohio State hat and a Michigan State shirt.”
Once the game tips off, mom and dad are sure to be torn, though Kyle was clear about his mindset.
“I’ll be talking to my bother a lot and giving him a little crap, but it will be a lot of fun,” Kyle said. “At the end of the day, he’s my brother. On the court, we’re going to be enemies. It’s going to be really fun.”
Michigan State at Ohio State
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
TV/radio: Fox/WJR 760
Records: No. 8 Michigan State 12-2, 3-0 Big Ten; No. 14 Ohio State 12-1, 2-0
Outlook: The Buckeyes have won their last six games following their only loss this season coming to Syracuse. … Sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 16.5 points and 6.8 boards per game. He is one of two players in double figures, joined by senior guard C.J. Jackson, who is averaging 13.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and has hit a team-high 26 3-pointers. … Michigan State has won just once in its last five trips to Ohio State.