Chris Solari Detroit Free Press
Published 6:00 AM EST Feb 17, 2019
EAST LANSING — The last time Michigan State faced Ohio State, both teams were riding hot streaks and were ranked among the top 14 in the nation.
The Buckeyes hit a slide, losing 86-77 to the Spartans and dropping five of their next six. They fell out of the national rankings.
The Spartans kept winning, climbing as high as sixth in the AP poll, until a three-game skid that has since ended with two wins in a row.
No. 11 MSU hosts Ohio State Sunday at Breslin Center. It is another game toward chasing a Big Ten title for the second-place Spartans (20-5, 11-3), and an opportunity for the Buckeyes (16-8, 6-7) to get a signature win toward their NCAA tournament resume.
“We’re back to what made us successful in the past,” MSU guard Cassius Winston said Thursday. “We’re getting stops, we were rebounding the ball really well and getting out in transition. Nick (Ward) is doing a good job of dominating inside, and everybody else has been playing their role.”
Here are three things to watch when the two teams tip off at 1 p.m. (CBS).
MSU used essentially seven players in its 67-59 win at Wisconsin on Tuesday, with Winston ceding just 55 seconds to Foster Loyer at point guard as the eighth.
However, coach Tom Izzo said that he is not opposed to expanding his rotation in the coming weeks before postseason play begins.
“We just played seven in that one game. Two games before that, we played nine,” Izzo said Thursday after practice. “It’s gonna change with personnel, what we’re going against, what we think. We still feel comfortable that we can.”
The Spartans, who are without Joshua Langford for the rest of the season, are getting more production from other sources beyond Winston and Nick Ward.
More: Michigan State basketball begins stretch run with Big Ten title in reach
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More: Kenny Goins, Aaron Henry helping MSU replace Langford’s lost scoring
Forward Kenny Goins has developed into a bona fide outside shooting threat. Fellow senior Matt McQuaid continues to flash perimeter scoring with his defensive skills, while freshman Aaron Henry, sophomore Xavier Tillman and junior Kyle Ahrens all have given key buckets in critical moments.
“More guys are stepping up and contributing,” said Winston, who finished with 25 points in the first meeting with Ohio State and 23 against Wisconsin. “It keeps that balance to the floor. When teams can’t zero in on people, they just gotta respect everyone on the floor. It’s hard to check a team like that.”
That has left little time for Loyer and fellow freshmen Gabe Brown, Thomas Kithier and Marcus Bingham Jr. However, Izzo hopes to get at least a few of them some minutes to help rest his key rotation guys at times.
“Foster had a minute or two good there — he’s had a bunch of good minutes the game before. Gabe didn’t get in (at Wisconsin) — we still think we gotta get Gabe more minutes,” Izzo said. “But as you saw (Thursday, Ahrens) didn’t practice. But we gotta figure out how we’re gonna probably play eight, maybe nine once in a while even if it’s only for a few minutes.”
Ward vs. Wesson
One of the key matchups in the first game in Columbus was Ward against Ohio State big man Kaleb Wesson.
The 6-foot-9 Ward finished with one of his most complete games, scoring 21 points on 5 of 7 shooting with eight rebounds and three blocks. He went 11 of 14 at the free-throw line while drawing 11 of the Buckeyes’ 26 fouls, with both Kaleb and Andre Wesson as well as guard Luther Muhammad fouling out.
“Nick was good. And everything he did down there — he was our most solid player, he was up on ball screens, he did his job rebounding, he did his job defending,” Izzo said. “I thought it was one of Nick’s better games, and hopefully that means he’s focused in on what he’s gotta do.”
Kaleb Wesson is averaging 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. The 6-9, 270-pound sophomore forward scored 25 points on 9 of 15 shooting and had eight rebounds against MSU, and Izzo said he and his staff have “looked at some things we did wrong there.”
Ethan Happ scored 20 points on 10 of 20 shooting against Ward and MSU on Tuesday, but the Wisconsin big man also missed all six of his free throws. Wesson, however, presents a different challenge for Ward.
“Happ is very fundamental. Wesson, he’s heavier — he’s gonna take a load out of you just by his weight alone,” Ward said. “Happ is more up-and-under, fakes, spin moves, stuff like that.”
The Buckeyes lost five straight games in January and seven of their last 11 following a torrid start to the season. They had a three-game win streak snapped Thursday with a 63-56 home loss to Illinois.
Along with the younger Wesson, senior guard C.J. Jackson is averaging 11.8 points and 4.0 rebounds a game.
Andre Wesson is averaging 10.7 points and 4.1 boards, and the 6-6, 220-pound junior has scored in double digits in five of his last seven games. Muhammad is now averaging 10.0 points, and the 6-3 freshman guard had a pair of 20-plus-point games since facing MSU.
MSU 80, Ohio State 68: The Spartans get another inspired performance from Ward in what possibly could end up being his final game against the Buckeyes if MSU doesn’t run into them in the Big Ten tournament and if he turns pro after the season.
Contact Chris Solari at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.
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