If the Big Ten schedule seemed a little easier this year, well, you would be mistaken.
Ohio State enters the meat and potatoes of the conference slate tonight when the Michigan State Spartans make the trip to Columbus. The game marks the first of two contests between the Buckeyes and the Spartans, meaning the end of the Big Ten season involves a concentrated dose of green and white.
Ohio State checks in as the third best team in the country, while Michigan State is ranked 11th. This is the eighth time the Buckeyes will take on a ranked opponent this season. They are 5-2 this season when playing one of the country's 25 best teams.
The Spartans can take a big step toward gaining the top seed in the Big Ten tournament with a win in Columbus on Saturday. Meanwhile, Ohio State is tasked with protecting its home court and maintaining its top spot in the conference. The Buckeyes still have to visit East Lansing later in the season.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that they have not lost at home since February 2010. They have registered 39 wins in a row at the Schottenstein Center, including a couple wins against this Spartan squad. That is the second longest home winning streak in program history.
Ohio State must find a way to control the pace against Michigan State. Jared Sullinger needs to get a touch in just about every possession, and Aaron Craft needs to lead an effort that includes a ton of ball movement. The Buckeyes have a very solid corps of 3-point shooters, but they tend to be the most effective when ball movement leads to open looks.
On defense, Ohio State needs to slow down a very potent Michigan State attack. The Spartans have a knack for identifying weaknesses in their opponents' defense, and that has led to trouble for just about every team they have played this season.
This is a series that will be very difficult for either team to sweep. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they must defend home court before invading enemy territory. If Ohio State had traveled to East Lansing first, it could have scoped out the Spartans and tried to steal a victory. But now, the Buckeyes have to defend their own house while Michigan State gets comfortable with Ohio State's attack.
Senior forward Wiliam Buford will be the mystery factor in the game. If he is on his game, the Buckeyes should not have too much trouble against the Spartans. Buford is now sixth all-time on Ohio State's scoring list. The Toledo native passed his Northwest Ohio neighbor, Jim Jackson, to move up on the list. He is also the conference's active scoring leader in Big Ten play.
Tip-off is set for 6 p.m., and the game can be seen on ESPN.
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