With six games remaining in both team's regular seasons, the rematch on Michigan State's home floor in the season finale on March 4 could prove to be the stage where the Big Ten championship is ultimately decided.
"God I hope so," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, "but it is only going to get tougher. The Big Ten is the best it has ever been."
Jared Sullinger led the Buckeyes (21-4, 9-3) with 17 points and 16 rebounds, but the big man faced intense interior defensive pressure from the Spartans that resulted in 10 turnovers from the sophomore All-America big man.
In all, Ohio State suffered 15 turnovers – resulting in 16 Michigan State points – and the Buckeyes shot only 26.4 percent from the floor.
"We played 25 games and we decided in the 25th game that we weren't going to play our system," said Sullinger, who showed signs of frustration on multiple occasions throughout the course of the physical contest. "That's the biggest thing – if we executed our offense I think some of those shots would have went."
A missed tip-in attempt by William Buford as the buzzer sounded before halftime left the Buckeyes with a 35-25 deficit at the break, the largest the team has faced on its home floor all season. However, the Buckeyes started the second half quickly.
Deshaun Thomas hit a quick shot to start the final 20 minutes and two Sullinger free throws on two separate trips to the free throw line cut the Buckeyes' deficit to six. Sullinger's battle with Michigan State's big men was heating up in the process.
Payne, an AAU teammate of Sullinger, fouled the Buckeye big man at the 18:27 mark. Sullinger, who was yelling after the call, ripped control of the ball after Green tried to poke it away from him after the whistle.
A few possessions later, the physical play between Sullinger and Green ended up with both players on the floor after fighting for a rebound. Things became heated between the two big men, but no more altercations arose.
The tough defensive effort out of Michigan State continued and it caused Ohio State to struggle scoring. Sullinger had a hard time cashing in on inside shots and the sophomore had no help from Buford or Thomas from the outside. Both players finished 2-for-12 from the floor.
Buford, who was coming off a career-high 29-point performance in Ohio State's victory over Purdue on Tuesday, finished with only four points. Thomas had eight points, but missed on all five of his shot attempts from beyond the arc.
Michigan State responded to Ohio State's quick second half start scoring six-straight points, capped by a layup by Brenden Dawson at the 15:42 mark to extend the team's lead to 41-29.
"We weren't executing at the level we were needing to execute and I think some of that was shots weren't falling for us," Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. "I thought defensively we probably did a good enough job to win the game, but it all came down to our inability to put the ball in the basket today."
Despite what turned out to be Ohio State's worst offensive performance of the season – the Buckeyes were held nearly 30 points less than their season average of 76.9 per game – Ohio State cut what once was a 12-point second half deficit to four points at 44-40 on a 15-foot Sullinger jumper with 6:24 remaining in the game.
Michigan State scored 11 of the game's next 15 points to close out the Buckeyes, a run that was highlighted by a left-handed shot off the glass by Payne. A layup by Sullinger at the 1:13 mark brought Ohio State within nine points, the closest the Buckeyes would get before ultimately falling by 10.
"We have to refocus," sophomore point guard Aaron Craft said. "We're still at the top of the league. We've got a long way to go. You have to give them a lot of credit. They were the better team tonight."