Only two teams remain in the season-ending tournament of the toughest conference in the country. The Ohio State Buckeyes, fresh off a strong victory over the Michigan Wolverines, are set to do battle with the Michigan State Spartans for the second time in a week. Again, much like the previous duel, championship implications ride on the result, making the game significantly more important than it already would have been.
Overall, the Spartans have only participated in two Tournament Championship games in the 15 years the tournament has run. Michigan State last played for the championship in 2000 where they defeated the 4th seeded Fighting Illini 76-61. They also won in 1999 over the 11th seeded Illini 67-50. When the Spartans make it to the final game, they certainly make the most of the opportunity.
The Buckeyes are only the third team holding the number three seed to make it to the tournament final. The first occurrence was in 1998, the first year of the tournament, when #3 Purdue lost to #4 Michigan 76-67. The second time was in 2009 when #3 Purdue defeated fifth seeded Ohio State 65-61.
The Michigan State Spartans, one of the the Big Ten’s most consistently powerful teams, earned the opportunity to play for the Tournament championship on the strength of a hard fought win against the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers swiftly jumped out to an 11 point lead while Michigan State struggled to find their shot. In the blink of an eye, the Spartans used their defensive intensity to drive offensive momentum, and quickly claimed a 10 point lead at halftime. Tom Izzo was then able to hold Bo Ryan’s Badgers at bay for the remainder of the game, allowing the Spartans to claim the 65-52 victory with little difficulty.
Ohio State had an easy time of it in the semi-finals as well. The Buckeyes jumped out to a quick lead on the hapless Wolverines. Stars Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. failed to find many open looks against the stifling OSU defense, shooting a combined 4-21 for the game. Hardaway opened the game with Michigan’s first basket before suffering a 29 minute scoring drought, while Trey Burke was unable to make a shot fall until 7 minutes left in the game. The Buckeyes rode their tough defense to the win, demonstrating yet again Matta’s strategy of focusing on defense first and making the offense flow from it.
Michigan State has been playing inspired basketball so far through the tournament, with the exception of the first 10 minutes of their game against Wisconsin. The Spartans are dominating, winning both of their games by an average of 15 points. Draymond Green in particular has led the Spartans in scoring and rebounding on both days, collecting 35 points and 26 rebounds – including 16 today against Wisconsin. He has taken on the role of Senior Leader in a big way, and is helping lift his team at the right time.
With the Spartans hoping to avenge their late season losses and claim an outright title it goes without saying that they will bring something special to the court tomorrow. The Buckeyes are going to have to play at top form for 40 straight minutes in order to have a chance to pull away with the victory. Jared Sullinger needs to continue to be tough to stop in the paint, but needs to do a better job on the boards than he did today against Michigan. If he fails to collect more than ten rebounds tomorrow, the Buckeyes will struggle in handling the Michigan State offense.
|#32||L. Smith Jr.||24.364||6.03||46.9||57.7||34.5||4.515||2.182||0.97||0.121||2.0|
OSU will also depend on what Deshaun Thomas has brought to the table. The power forward has done an excellent job of finding ways of scoring points when the Buckeyes need it most. Better yet, Thad Matta has put pressure on him to play better defense, even going so far as to call him “Shaun Thomas” – since he has no “D”. Deshaun has responded positively by playing tougher defense, and has demonstrated that his speed and agility is useful in guarded as many as four different positions on the court. He played a critical role in helping Aaron Craft throw Trey Burke off balance, emphasizing this new focus on his defensive game.
For the Buckeyes to win, they have to play even better defense than they did a week ago in East Lansing. They cannot allow Michigan State to jump out to a quick lead this time around, because Izzo will not allow his team to slip again. The Bucks need to, at worst, keep up with the Spartans from the get-go, and preferably hold the lead like they did against Purdue. With the passion that the team has recently demonstrated, they should be more than up to the task. The only question is if it will be enough against the newly motivated Spartans.
Ohio State will play Michigan State in Indianapolis on Sunday, March 11th at 3:30 PM EST. You’ll be able to see that game on CBS.