The way Drew Neitzel was shooting, Ohio State head coach Thad Matta must have had deja vu all over again. Instead of needing a game-winning defensive stand at the buzzer, the Buckeyes instead preserved a 63-54 win on the road against Michigan State despite Neitzel's 24-point effort.
In a half much different than the first 20 minutes one week ago in Columbus, Ohio State led Michigan State 26-21 at halftime despite poor shooting and many questionable fouls by both teams. Despite building up a lead that flirted with double-digits in the second half, Ohio State allowed Neitzel to keep the Spartans close with 21 points.
Ohio State never trailed Saturday, but Michigan State closed to within 42-41 with a chance to take the lead. However, a 7-0 run by Ohio State kept the Buckeyes ahead for good and Michigan State never came to within closer than three points.
Neitzel was 6-of-12 from 3-point range on the afternoon. With four scorers in double-figures, Greg Oden led Ohio State with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Senior Ron Lewis added 11 points for the Buckeyes. Jamar Butler had 10 points and three assists while freshman point guard Mike Conley also had 10 points and three assists. The two guards combined on zero turnovers for Ohio State, who had just seven as a team for the entire game.
Ohio State scored 37 second-half points by shooting 50 percent and committing just four turnovers. Besides Neitzel and Goran Suton, who had 16 points for the Spartans, Michigan State got just 14 points from the rest of their team, including freshman Raymar Morgan who struggled as he was 1-of-8 from the field.
Junior college transfer Othello Hunter had 8 points and eight rebounds on 3-of-3 shooting for the Buckeyes.
What Michigan State Did Right and Ohio State Did Wrong
* Michigan State constantly exploited Oden's biggest deficiency on the defensive end - recovering on the high screen when going out to hedge. Ohio State was faced with the decision to hedge the screen and risk giving up the pick-and-roll for an open jumper or easy layup, or have their defenders fight the screen and hope not to allow Neitzel and open 3-pointer. Finally Ohio State had Oden back off and the Buckeyes instead had other guards help off their man to hedge the screen. Michigan State went away from this exploitation late in the game.
* Ohio State struggled to guard Neitzel, who thrived in the second half, for the second time in a week, off the screen at the top of the key. Out of character, there were a few times where Butler gave up on a screen, allowing Neitzel an open look. Give credit to the 6-1 junior Buckeye guard for making Neitzel earn his keep, but he singled-handedly kept the Spartans alive.
* For the second consecutive time, Michigan State flustered Oden by keeping him pushed out far along the baseline. Despite being out of the middle, Oden never drew a double-team and looked uncomfortable in his decision-making process as to shoot, pass or dribble.
* Daequan Cook was a non-factor for the second time in three away games for the Buckeyes. Much like the game against Northwestern, Cook played just 17 minutes as Matta opted to play his veterans. Cook was mostly a non-factor offensively, although there was no indication Matta was unhappy with his defensive play - which has been a topic of discussion. Cook's disappearing act will not likely signal a continuing trend.
* I thought when Michigan State began the second half with Suton posting up Oden on the block, that the Spartans were on to something. Suton's production was a Godsend for the Spartans, who could not trust the ball in anyone's hands beyond he and Neitzel. Tom Izzo eventually gave way to the high screen, drawing Oden away from the basket, but the Spartans may have had an opportunity to get Oden in further foul trouble early in the second half. Oden also picked up a hand-checking foul for probably the third or fourth time in the last few weeks - an indication he will have to work on his footwork defensively when drawn away from the hoop.
* Foul shooting has been an off-and-on problem for Ohio State. While you expect ups and downs from Oden, who is shooting left-handed for the time being, you don't like to see it from Conley - your future point guard. Conley has struggled to keep 67 percent from the charity stripe this season. As word gets out about his shooting, you will see many more times where teams will attempt to foul him late in the game, making him earn points from the line if Ohio State wants to close out games.
What Ohio State Did Right and Michigan State Did Wrong
* Despite an extended halfcourt defense by Michigan State, who was working hard against Ohio State beyond the 3-point line, Ohio State committed just seven turnovers and made great decisions with the basketball. Although there were not a lot of quick 3-4 pass sequences by Ohio State, I thought their picking of spots to make entry passes and penetrate was the best they've had all season.
* Unlike last Saturday where Michigan State was causing most of the problems on the offensive glass, Ohio State attacked the boards - mostly in the form of Hunter. The 6-9 forward had several key rebounds over the last 10 minutes opposite of Oden. Hunter's length and athleticism caused problems for the Michigan State frontcourt.
* The 1-2 punch of Conley and Butler has apparently found a certain chemistry. After both playing key roles in the victory over Purdue earlier and the week, Conley and Butler combined on 20 points, six assists, no turnovers and three steals. Conley picked his spots to penetrate while Butler made a couple of critical 3-pointers to stop the bleeding on Spartan spurts.
* A big turning point in the game today was Matta's decision to throw a 2-3 zone at Michigan State with three minutes to go. Matta used the zone for only a few possessions, but the decision got the Spartans out of any rhythm they had at that time. With the exception of one more Neitzel three, the Spartans never got back into sync the last two minutes.
The win for Ohio State gave them the upper hand for the Big Ten Championship, at least on paper. Ohio State has a relatively easy schedule from here on out with the one glaring exception of Wisconsin in Columbus. Should the Buckeyes win that game, taking care of business the rest of the way would give them an outright title as well as likely a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State, on the other hand, has Indiana and Iowa at home, a pair of games against in-state rival Michigan and a pair of games against Wisconsin. At 4-5 in the conference, Michigan State likely cannot afford more than three losses in those six games to comfortably rest on the plus side of the bubble on Selection Sunday. The Spartans might be staring down an 8-8 Big Ten finish for the second consecutive season.
It was an encouraging win for Ohio State when you consider they beat Michigan State on their home floor despite making just six 3-pointers and Oden scored just 5 points in the second half. Matta would have likely taken any kind of win at Breslin, but Saturday's game was one to build off of.