Lately Michigan State has looked invincible.
The Spartans (25-5, 12-5 Big Ten) have climbed to No. 2 in the latest Associated Press ranking and won five straight games and nine of their last 10. Tom Izzo’s team has won its last five games, including a 19-point romp over Ohio State Feb. 23, by an average of 22.4 points.
Now the Buckeyes ( 19-11, 10-6) are tasked with topping a Michigan State team that had three seniors – Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello – combine to score 60 points in the win over Ohio State on the Spartans senior day Saturday. Clearly, it won’t be easy.
“I think it’s obviously a tremendous advantage," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of the Spartans seniors. "I think back to where those guys were, talking about Valentine and Costello, just where they started and the progress and what they’ve done and the players they’ve become. That’s ultimately what it’s supposed to be when they dedicated themselves the way they did.”
Matta is 11-13 against Michigan State in his Ohio State tenure and most of those matchups have been close as seven of the past 10 meetings have been decided by four points or less, giving the Buckeyes hope in a hostile environment.
In order to get a sense of how the Buckeyes can pull off an unlikely upset, one that would do wonders for their extremely slim NCAA Tournament chances, I took a look back at the five times Michigan State has lost this season to form some sort of blueprint for Thad Matta’s team.
The Spartans opened Big Ten play with an 83-70 loss to Iowa, but Michigan State didn’t have Denzel Valentine for that contest. Missing a player that will be the Big Ten Player of the Year and is in contention for that award nationally makes this loss excusable and since Valentine will play against the Buckeyes, lets toss this defeat aside.
Michigan State lost the rematch to the Hawkeyes on Jan. 14, falling 76-59 at home. Valentine scored just 14 points in that game as he was still working back from injury, while the Spartans shot just 41.8 percent and turned the ball over 16 times. Those giveaways led to 17 Iowa points.
Following that defeat the Spartans dropped just three games, each one coming by a single point. Those losses, however, showed that Michigan State can lose in spite of a strong performance from Valentine as the senior averaged 24.7 points with 7 assists and 7 rebounds in those three losses.
The difference in those three losses was the play of the other two starting seniors.
Forbes missed the Jan. 17 loss to Wisconsin while he and Costello combined for just 11 points in a Jan. 20 loss to Nebraska. Forbes had just 7 points in an overtime loss to Purdue Feb. 9 while Costello had 11.
It appears the best bet for the Buckeyes would be to live with Valetine getting his and doing their best to shut down Forbes and Costello, the former of which torched Ohio State for 27 points and is coming off a Big Ten record 11 threes in a win over Rutgers.
“We’ve got to do a better job staying connected," Matta said of stopping Forbes. Obviously he’s shooting the basketball at a level right now that is as good as anybody in the country, probably including Steph Curry. But you say that, we’ve got to use our length, we can’t make the mistakes. Now he’s going to make some, but the shots we gave him in game one it felt like we tried to short cut things a couple times."
The reality is getting a win over what many think is the best team in the country – the Spartans enter the matchup as the Las Vegas favorite to win the national title – on Michigan State’s senior night is a tall order and even the blueprint for such a victory is blurry at best.
But when the Spartans and Buckeyes meet strange things tend to happen.