Cagers Not Sleeping On Spartans

On the surface, the No. 2 team in the nation could be forgiven for looking past an unranked foe entering its arena. While that is the situation Ohio State finds itself in tonight as it hosts unranked Michigan State, the Buckeyes told reporters they have plenty of respect for the Spartans.

This is probably not what ESPN had in mind before the season started when it picked Ohio State's home contest with Michigan State to be a prime-time matchup.

With both teams coming off a shared Big Ten title a season ago, it figured to be an epic showdown between two of the conference's elite. That thought was furthered when the Spartans were pegged the preseason favorite to win the league and the Buckeyes were picked second.

Instead, OSU sits atop the conference and second in the nation at 24-1 overall and 11-1 in Big Ten play while the Spartans have dropped from their preseason No. 2 spot like rocks. MSU opened the year 8-4 but suffered all its losses at the hands of teams currently ranked in the nation's top 20. It was in Big Ten play that things got ugly, however.

After opening 4-2, the Spartans have lost four of their last six games entering tonight's contest (9 p.m., ESPN). Included in there is a three-game losing streak that was snapped Thursday with an 18-point home victory against Penn State that head coach Tom Izzo described as one of his team's better Big Ten games.

According to the coach, it is a sign that things might be turning around for the Spartans for a number of reasons.

"(It's) a combination of a lot of things," he said. "The depth is a little bit of a problem for us and unlike Ohio State we're used to playing with depth so we don't have guys playing 40 minutes a game. When we sub we still struggle sometimes. I think for the most part we really did harp on our defense. We maybe got back to the basics on our defending and our rebounding and sure enough, it made our offense better."

A key to that has been the improved play of senior guard Kalin Lucas, who suffered an injury to his left Achilles tendon during the NCAA Tournament last season and has been working to get back to full strength ever since.

The team's leading scorer at 16.2 points per game, Lucas has averaged 22.8 points in his last five contests. Izzo said it is the best he has played all season, and statistically it is the best five-game stretch of his MSU career.

"He's scoring more but he's also defending a little bit better," Izzo said. "That injury really took a toll on him in different areas."

The Spartans will likely be down one starter, however. Junior forward Delvon Roe suffered a knee injury in the PSU win but was listed as "a big question mark" by Izzo, who said he had not practiced as of Monday morning.

OSU head coach Thad Matta declined to speculate on what has gone wrong for the Spartans this season but said they expect a stiff challenge Tuesday night.

"Just look at what these guys on this team have accomplished in their time there," he said. "I think they're a great basketball team, I really do. You look at Coach Izzo and the job he's done, his record speaks for itself. We all go through some peaks and valleys through a season."

The Buckeyes have won two straight against MSU. Since the end of the 1992-93 season, OSU has won more than two consecutive contests with the Spartans just once. After losing his first three games against Izzo, Matta has gone 6-4.

This year, the teams play just once. It also happens to be OSU's first game after a loss the season, having taken a four-point road defeat to Wisconsin on Saturday. The Buckeyes did not rest after the loss to the Badgers, taking to the practice court Sunday.

Senior guard Jon Diebler said he expects the Spartans to see blood in the water when they look at the Buckeyes.

"We feel like we let one get away (against Wisconsin), especially being up 15," he said. "The beauty of college basketball is you have a quick turnaround. Michigan State's a very good basketball team. They've received a lot of crap for how they were ranked early on and how they're doing now but they have great players on the team."

The game is OSU's third in a stretch of five in a span of 16 days wherein the team will face a team that finished in the top half of the Big Ten a season ago. After the loss, Matta said he is simply excited to get back on the court.

"It's uncharted waters," he said. "We all know Michigan State is a great basketball team when things are clicking for them. We've seen that we get a pretty good test from the teams we've played. I'm anxious to see how we come out and play but they have given me no (negative) signs.

"I think they'll respond. That's who they are."

Another national television audience will be watching to find out.

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