Buckeyes Look For Rare Win At Breslin Center

Ohio State is riding a four-game winning streak and has already surpassed its win total of last season. However, the Buckeyes must travel to Michigan State's Breslin Center Wednesday, a building where they have only tasted victory one time. Here is a preview.

Ohio State is just 1-11 all-time at Michigan State's Breslin Center, but the Buckeyes will look to change their luck Wednesday when they travel to East Lansing.

The Spartans (15-4, 6-2) are coming off a 75-64 win at Iowa Saturday.

The Buckeyes (16-7, 5-4) are riding a four game winning streak, the latest victory being a 72-46 romp over Michigan Saturday.

Michigan State's leading scorer is 6-5 junior guard Maurice Ager at 13.9 points per game.

The rest of its starting lineup includes: 6-11 junior center Paul Davis (12.6 ppg, 6.8 rebounds per game), 6-6 senior G/F Alan Anderson (11.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg), 6-4 sophomore guard Shannon Brown (11.2 ppg) and 6-3 senior guard Chris Hill (9.1 ppg, 4.5 assists per game).

The Spartans also have a talented sixth man in 6-4 senior G/F Kelvin Torbert (10.6 ppg).

"I think they're obviously a great basketball team," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "Not a good basketball team, a great basketball team. They've got experience, depth, size. They're playing a little bit differently than they've played in the past, I think. They're a high transition-type team. A team that leads the country in free throw shooting (percentage)."

The Spartans are shooting a clean 80 percent from the foul line (330 of 411). Arizona is second-best in the nation at 78.4 percent.

By comparison, Ohio State is shooting just 64 percent from the stripe.

Matta has never coached there, but he knows the Breslin Center is the most hostile environment in the Big Ten.

"It's probably one of the toughest places to play in the country and this will be another tremendous challenge for our guys," he said. "I think going in there, we have to make sure that we try and do the things that have made us successful this year. You look at a game like this and say it's one that we're really going to have to go in and play well.

"Our No. 1 goal is to go in and try and execute what we're trying to do in the game, and that would be guarding Michigan State's actions, running the actions we want to run. I think that's the sign of a real good basketball team if you can go into a hostile environment and get the job done with what you're trying to do. I think maybe the crowd could affect some runs and give the home team some momentum, but hopefully in game 24, we've build some resiliency to that. But I know you can't ever simulate it. We can't simulate it in practice."

It seems like Ohio State's players are playing with more confidence during the winning streak.

"I think so," Matta said. "Hopefully we are feeling a little bit better, but with it being Feb. 8, you hope all the practices we've had – (Tuesday) is our 93rd practice – you hope guys have a little bit more confidence in what we're doing, because we're working at it every day."

But there are still a few improvements that the coach wants his team to make.

"I think rebounding is always going to be a key for us," Matta said. "I think continuing to build our defense is something… because you can't go into a place like Michigan State and not defend and have a chance. And I think continuing to build our offensive execution and continue to get good shots and I think I would also like to see us shoot a little bit better percentage as well."

Matta was asked if there is a sense of satisfaction that the Bucks have already passed their win total of last season.

"Yeah, I guess it is," he said. "I haven't really thought that much about it. I think that the approach that we've taken with this team of everyday is a new day for us and how do we get a little better each day. I think at the end of the year and you look at collectively at what we did, I think that will be more of a key because I think to stop and celebrate now would be doing us a big disservice."

Matta moved guards Je'Kel Foster and Jamar Butler into the starting lineup three games ago and the decision has worked.

"You know, I don't think I can pinpoint exactly why that would be," Matta said. "I think that maybe it gets us out of the gate a little bit better defensively. But I think both Brandon (Fuss-Cheatham) and Tony (Stockman) came in the other day (against Michigan) and provided great energy defensively. Both guys had a lot of deflections and maybe it's just a little bit of a change that sparked us, I'm not really sure. But guys have been competing defensively and I love that."

Hypothetically, if the Buckeyes were not banned from the NCAA Tournament this season, beating Michigan State would be a big win. It would be one of those wins that might get OSU over the hump in the opinion of the selection committee. But Matta doesn't think in those terms.

"I think I'm probably different than most coaches in my approach, because I've never viewed, you know, this is a huge win," he said. "I think that people that talk, or write and that sort of thing about bubble, or key wins, or key losses, are doing kids a disservice because college basketball is such a long season. But I understand why they do it. College basketball and any sports, it's such a long season and it's about the kids and seeing them get better. I think so much is put on the end of the year, when really it's about what you do to get there.

"So, for me personally, I just want these guys to experience success. I mean, you look at a guy like Tony, with 16 wins, this is the first time he's ever had a winning season in college basketball. I want, for our seniors, to make this a season that they'll never forget and they can look back on and say, ‘That was a tremendous year for us.'"

But Ohio State has clearly played well this season, despite the postseason ban. It would have been easy for the players to quit on the season when the ban was handed down. A ban they had nothing to do with.

"It's a great tribute to our kids and what they stand for," Matta said. "I think one of the most important jobs that I have is preparing these kids for the future in life and getting them to understand that every day is important and when you go to bed at night knowing that you did the best you could do. Building towards a team is something that I think these guys have picked up on.

"To say that we don't have anything to play for, I would disagree. Because these guys are competitors and they want to win. So, that's kind of been the motivation for us, to put together the best team that we can and I think they've bought into that."

Ohio State junior forward J.J. Sullinger knows it won't be easy to win at the Breslin Center, but he's looking forward to the trip.

"They are a very good team and we're excited about the challenge," he said. "Anytime you can play against a ranked team at their house, you're pumped. This is what guys live for. This is what guys play the game for. So, we're all excited for it."

Sullinger thinks the Buckeyes need to be fundamentally sound to win the game.

"We need to focus on the small things because the small things is what gets you wins," he said. "So, when you take care of the ball and you make the other team cough up the ball, you win games.

"I just think we've got to match their intensity and play extremely hard. They rebound extremely well on the offensive end, as well as the defensive end. So, we're going to have to rebound the basketball. And just stop their transition. They love to get up and down the floor. So, we're going to have to be able to get back so they don't get easy baskets."

Sullinger is 13th in the Big Ten in rebounding at 5.5 per game. Not bad for a small forward.

"I honestly didn't know that, but (assistant coach John) Groce has been keeping me updated on my rebounding statistics and stuff like that," Sullinger said. "The past couple games, I haven't done a great job rebounding. I think I only had two against Purdue. But, I just try and do whatever it takes to help this team win. Rebounding has been something that I've been called upon to do, so that's all I try and do."

With the Buckeyes playing natural three men like Ivan Harris and Matt Sylvester at the four, it's even more important for Sullinger to grab his share of boards.

"It's huge," Sullinger said. "We all have to compensate for the lack of size we have inside. So, everybody is rebounding. Brandon had six rebounds last game. Everybody has been asked to help out wherever they can and I've been asked to rebound. Luckily I've been in a good situation to do so."

With the postseason ban, winning in the Breslin Center is one of the top remaining goals for OSU this season.

"Oh, most definitely," Sullinger said. "We talk about this all the time: You've got to find new ways and different ways to remember this season, since we can't go to the tournament. So, winning at Michigan State would be huge and would be talked about for a long time."

Sullinger took time to reflect on what Ohio State has accomplished up to this point of the season.

"I would say we've accomplished a lot," he said. "No one had any idea we would be 16-7 right now. I know there were people saying we couldn't win 10 games. But we have a lot of basketball left, so we're definitely not satisfied. We're not satisfied winning more games than we did last year, because we've got more games to win.

"But from the moment the postseason ban was placed on us, we turned our focus into being spoilers. Once we heard from (Matta) that we weren't going to be able to go to the postseason and play, the moment he told us that, right after he told us, now we have a different objective. Now we have to be spoilers. We have to spoil other teams' chances of going to the tournament. So, that's just what we placed our concern with."

If the postseason ban wasn't in place, OSU would be right in the mix for the NCAA Tournament. As a reporter pointed out, half the fun of college basketball is seeing who are the bubble teams and the locks as March Madness approaches.

"It would be fun and we understand that, we know that," Sullinger said. "It's a bittersweet situation (knowing we'd probably get in) but you can't cry over spilled milk. So, we're not really going to sulk about it. We're just going to try and continue to do the things that got us to the situation that we're in. Where people are talking about, ‘They might be a bubble team, this that and the third.' We can't lose sight of what got us there, so we're going to keep trying to stay focused."

Sullinger was asked for his reaction that teams with less wins than OSU and a worse RPI will likely get in the tournament.

"It just makes us feel like we could have been there and we should be there," he said. "But it probably gives us more motivation for those of us coming back next year to get back to that point so next year at this time we won't be talking about, ‘Well, we could have did it last year.' We're going to try and do it that year. So, for right now, our main concern is trying to win basketball games and put us in a good position to win the Big Ten Tournament."

Sullinger thinks Butler has given a nice lift to the team recently.

"Jamar brings that defensive intensity," he said. "He pressures the ball extremely well. Then, it's kind of like contagious. Once he starts going, and Je'Kel starts going, we all start going. You know, they started that one game and we went on a winning streak and you don't want to break that."

Butler is looking forward to his first trip to East Lansing. He knows it will be a hostile environment, but this is the time to learn the ropes.

"You know, you get a little nervous before every game, but I'd have to say I'm more excited to go in there and play in that environment," Butler said. "We just need to stay focused on what we have to do to get a win. Just take care of the ball and try and bring a win back home."

Michigan State has a lot of depth and experience in their backcourt, but Butler thinks OSU matches up well.

"No, we don't really have concerns with matchups," he said. "We're just going to go in and play team defense and try and stop what they have."

Butler says OSU is playing its best basketball of the season.

"The confidence right now, everyone's confidence is pretty high," he said. "We're playing within the system, doing what (Matta) wants us to do and playing good."

In addition to free throw shooting, Michigan State is also one of the best rebounding teams in the nation.

"Oh yeah, (rebounding is) going to be a big key," Butler said. "They really crash the boards hard. We're going to have to really block our man out and try and get rebounds."

If the Buckeyes come out the same way they did against Michigan, they should have a realistic chance of winning the game. They jumped on the Wolverines from the opening tip and did not let up.

"I'd have to say it was the defense," Butler said. "The defense was clicking against Michigan and we had it going both ways. We were finishing our shots, we got Terence (Dials) going, which opened up the guard play. We just tried to jump on them early and take them out."

Notables:

* OSU is 1-1 against ranked teams this year, losing at No. 1 Illinois (84-65) and winning at home against then-No. 14 Iowa (81-69).

* Matta is 10-10 all-time against ranked teams in his fifth year as a college head coach. The loss at Illinois made Matta 2-3 all-time on the road against ranked teams.

* Ohio State is 1-9 on the road against ranked teams dating to a 2001 win at then-No. 14 Iowa. The lone win was a 65-59 win at then-No. 21 Purdue last year.

* The Breslin Center has historically been a house of horrors for Ohio State. It opened for the 1989-90 basketball season, replacing historic (but archaic) Jemison Field House.

* Ohio State's lone win at the Breslin Center was a 78-65 win in the Big Ten championship season of 1992. OSU's losses at Breslin have ranged from one point (67-66 in 1997) to 15 points (81-66 in 1993, 75-60 in 1994 and 71-56 in 2001).

* MSU leads the all-time series 57-46. Since OSU swept the season series in 1992, MSU holds a commanding 17-3 edge.

* The Spartans won the only matchup last year, 84-70 in Columbus.


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