It’s an uncomfortable reality for the No. 18 Ohio State basketball team, but it is one it must learn to live with moving forward – it likely won’t earn at least a share of its fourth consecutive Big Ten championship this season.
So when No. 4 Michigan State enters Value City Arena on Sunday for a 4 p.m. contest against the Buckeyes, it may feel different for an Ohio State team that’s known nothing but winning under head coach Thad Matta.
“It always feels like a trophy I on the line when we play one of the top tier teams in this conference,” junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “Michigan State is a very good team that always makes deep runs in the tournament. When you play against good teams like Michigan State, it’s always a good feeling.”
This time there won’t be a trophy on the line, at least for Ohio State.
Instead, the Buckeyes (19-7, 9-5 Big Ten) are hoping to hold onto their two-game lead for fifth place in the conference, positioning, if maintained, would give the team a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
But above all, Ohio State is hoping team earn something it hasn’t had since beating then-No. 2 Michigan on its home floor on Jan. 13 – a quality win.
“Badly,” Smith responded when asked how much OSU needs a win against a highly regarded opponent. “We need wins immediately. Any win we get now, no matter who we play, is going to be a good thing. To beat a ranked opponent would mean so much more.”
Perhaps that’s the case because the Buckeyes have only won one game against a ranked opponent this season in eight tries. And in Ohio State’s last attempt on the road against Wisconsin last Sunday, it was handed a 71-49 loss that Matta has continued to harp on even after the Buckeyes responded with a blowout win over Minnesota on Wednesday.
“We got embarrassed at Wisconsin, and I don't know if guys felt like (the Minnesota) win kind of relieves us of that or people forgot, but I still remember it,” Smith said. “I'm pretty sure (Matta) still remembers it and he's not going let it go. I'm not going let it go, and I don't expect anybody else to let it go.”
Whether Ohio State has truly grown from the humbling loss to the Badgers may be more evident against Michigan State (22-5, 11-3). Though Matta was encouraged to see his team show some resiliency with a mid-week win over Minnesota, the Gophers’ have been in a rut of their won with four losses in their last five games.
Michigan State is also coming off a loss, but it was a four-point nail-biter against No. 1 Indiana. The Spartans aim to bounce back against the Buckeyes with the hopes to stay within striking distance of the Hoosiers, who hold a one-game lead over Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten.
A win for both teams could go a long way in shaping the rest of their seasons, and the Buckeyes feel as if they have a shot to beat the Spartans after falling to them in East Lansing on Jan. 19 by only three points.
“They’re a better team in some ways, and they’re a different team in other ways,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said of the Buckeyes, analyzing how they have developed since January. “They’ve still got one of the best defensive guards in the country (Aaron Craft) and (Deshaun) Thomas, who is capable of getting 30 any night.”
Last season Ohio State closed out its regular season in the Breslin Center, a game where former guard William Buford buried a jumper with only one second remaining to lift the Buckeyes to a 72-70 win that gave them a share of the Big Ten title.
A week after that game, Ohio State faced Michigan State again in the Big Ten tournament championship. That time it was the Spartans that prevailed, 68-64.
This time there’s no hardware at stake, but Matta simply hopes his team will show it is still capable of playing with – and perhaps beating – the best teams in college basketball.
“The biggest thing I want for this basketball team is to play at the highest level they can play at and play as a team,” Matta said.
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