The No. 18 Ohio State Buckeyes have been very inconsistent against top competition this year, and they face one of two major tests they have remaining on their schedule this Sunday.
They still have a date with top-ranked Indiana on March 5, but first the Buckeyes will host the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans. A win could improve their seeding in the NCAA tournament and give them confidence heading into the Big Ten tournament.
A loss for the Spartans could drastically hinder their chances at receiving a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They knocked off the Buckeyes 59-56 in January, but that win came in East Lansing.
Sunday's game will take place at the Value City Arena in Columbus, and the Buckeyes are a different team at home. Ohio State is 14-2 on its home court, with its only losses coming to Kansas in December and top-ranked Indiana on Feb. 10.
If the Spartans are going to hand the Buckeyes another home loss, they will have to produce a stellar effort.
Here's how you can watch the action, and some deeper analysis into this matchup.
When: Sunday, 4 p.m. ET
Where: Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio
Are Spartans Worthy of a No. 1 Seed?
At 22-5 with only one home loss this season, the Spartans certainly look like a team worthy of a top spot in the NCAA tournament. But the final proof won't come until after the Big Ten tournament.
They can make things more difficult for themselves by losing on Sunday to Ohio State.
A loss would make winning the Big Ten tournament a must to secure a top seed in a regional, because most assume that the Indiana Hoosiers have a top spot locked up.
Because the Buckeyes have been so tough at home, a win in Columbus would register with the tournament selection committee. Even with a victory on Sunday, the Spartans will still have to finish strong.
In order for the Big Ten to have two No. 1 seeds, the Spartans will probably have to advance into the championship of the Big Ten tournament.
Can the Buckeyes Make Any Noise in the NCAA Tournament?
Ohio State can beat any team in the nation in the comforts of the Value City Arena, but on the road, is it not nearly as dangerous. The Buckeyes are just 3-5 on the road this season.
The team has yet to find a consistent second scoring option under Deshaun Thomas, and that makes them too easy to defend. Thomas is scoring 20 points per game, but no other Buckeye is in double figures.
It will be hard to beat a solid team on the road, or in a neutral site with that dynamic.
That said, the Buckeyes play great defense. They only allow 59 points per game, and their ability to shut teams down has been the root of their success all season.
Because they don't have tremendous firepower, when they don't hold teams to low shooting percentages, it is very difficult for them to win. For the season, the Buckeyes are holding teams to 39 percent shooting from the field.
However, in their seven losses, teams are shooting 48.9 percent.
This puts a ton of pressure on the Buckeyes to get stops trip after trip down the court.
It may not be realistic to think they will be able to shut down good teams enough to win more than one game in the NCAA tournament.
Players to Watch in this Matchup
Michigan State, Keith Appling
Appling is the Spartans' leading scorer, and he was key in pushing his team past the Buckeyes in their first meeting. He made two key free throws in the waning seconds to help seal the victory.
He is coming off one of his worst games of the season, though.
Appling scored just six points on 1-for-8 shooting in 36 minutes in the Spartans' 72-68 loss to Indiana on Tuesday. Against the Buckeyes' smothering defense, the Spartans will need him to bounce back strong to win.
Michigan State, Adreian Payne
The Spartans did drop the last game against Indiana, but Payne put together his second straight solid performance.
He had 17 points and seven rebounds against a tough Hoosier frontcourt, and that performance followed up a 15-point, 14-rebound effort against Nebraska.
An inside scoring presence would be huge for the Spartans in this game. He had 14 points and five rebounds in the first meeting with Ohio State, and he'll be looking to play as good or better this time.
Ohio State, Deshaun Thomas
With Ohio State, it begins and ends with Thomas. He has been amazing for them this season, and he deserves national player of the year consideration.
He lit the Spartans up for 28 points in the first meeting, and he could be even tougher to handle playing at home.
If he goes off for a huge game, the combination of the crowd's energy, the Buckeyes defense and Thomas' scoring will be too much for the Spartans.
Ohio Stat, Sam Thompson
The sophomore from Chicago is one of the most physically gifted players in the conference, but he has been terribly inconsistent. He's only averaging seven points per game, but his energy and athleticism can create easy scoring opportunities.
He is also a crowd-igniter, and that element could be the difference for the Buckeyes.
If Thompson gets it going on defense and makes plays in transition, the home-court advantage will reach new heights.
The Spartans are a better overall team, but the Buckeyes are terribly tough at home. Tom Izzo didn't have an answer for Thomas in East Lansing, and the Buckeyes star will play even bigger at home.
With Thomas' supporting cast having their performances augmented by the home crowd, the Buckeyes will be too much for the Spartans on Sunday.
It will be close, as many of these late-season conference matchups are, but the Buckeyes will win 55-50.
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