We're fresh off of the first week of conference play, and while we've learned a lot about our beloved 12-team league so far, the foray into conference play was lacking the kind of marquee match-up that a national audience can really sink its teeth into.
That will be amended tonight when the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes visit the No. 5 Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing for what promises to be a clash of the titans.
Ohio State boats the best defense in the nation and is undefeated through 15 games, but Thad Matta's team is not quite as battle-hardened as Tom Izzo's Spartans. Michigan State has endured a neutral site game with Kentucky and a road challenge versus Texas that make Ohio State's schedule seem tame by comparison.
While Ohio State is favored in the AP poll thanks to Michigan State's somewhat embarrassing home loss to North Carolina last month, the Spartans are favored by around six points out in Las Vegas. A big part of that is because MSU is a more balanced squad than its counterpart in Columbus. With trusted scorers like Gary Harris and Adreian Payne on board to go with defensive stalwarts Keith Appling and Branden Dawson, the Spartans are a lot more dependable than the Buckeyes, of whom we sometimes wonder about on offense.
The Players to Watch
It's easy to make this game about veteran guards Appling and Aaron Craft, but those are two guys who are consistent leaders. We don't have to worry too much about them distributing the ball at the right time or knowing when to shoot. The real "X-factor" in this game is Ohio State forward LaQuinton Ross. He got off to a slow start this season, but lately, Ross has been the dynamic scorer that he showed he could become with some stellar performances towards the end of the 2013 campaign. A week ago at Purdue, Ross had perhaps the best game of his career with 25 points and 12 boards in a win over the Boilermakers. If the talented junior can continue to produce consistently, the Buckeyes may remain undefeated for a while longer.
On the other hand, Michigan State has an athlete in Dawson who can check Ross on defense while being a great finisher at the other end of the floor. Dawson is not one to go rogue and create his own shot, but Michigan State has no one better at finishing plays at the rim or reviving dead possessions with his offensive rebounding ability. Even though MSU doesn't need him to score a ton, Dawson has been in double figures for five straight games, and his presence down low allows Payne to create havoc on the perimeter without hurting the team too much on the offensive glass.
Speaking of Payne, he's slumped with just nine total points in two games of conference play. This was after he was a dominant player throughout the non-conference season, so it's been a surprise to see him fly under the radar. Against Ohio State, however, Payne will be counted on to drag Buckeye center Amir Williams out to the perimeter and keep him from blocking shots and grabbing defensive rebounds. Even if Payne doesn't recover his scoring touch versus OSU, he'll be a key factor in the outcome.
I've believed that Michigan State is the best team in the B1G since November, and that hasn't changed despite the one blemish on its schedule. The Spartans are more balanced and talented than Ohio State, so they should be able to win at home. MSU 60, OSU 52.