For a change, Michigan State and Ohio State aren’t playing for a trophy.
After contesting Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles in two of their last three meetings, there’ll be no hardware up for grabs when the fourth-ranked Spartans square off with the No. 18 Buckeyes on Sunday.
That does not mean there is nothing on the line.
“It’s like there’s always a trophy on the line every time you play one of the top-tier teams in this conference,” Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “It’s clutch time now. It’s gut-check (time) now. Now, toward the end of the season, the good teams step up and make big plays and win games. That’s what this game is going to be about.”
Coach Tom Izzo’s team (22-5, 11-3) needs a victory to remain within reach of No. 1-ranked Big Ten leader Indiana (24-3, 12-2).
The Buckeyes (19-7, 9-5) are trying to maintain their two-game grip on fifth place and cement a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. They can also stretch coach Thad Matta’s string of 20-win seasons to a perfect 13 for 13.
A loss for either creates headaches down the road.
No matter what happens, there’s mutual respect. The two programs have fought on equal terms for almost a decade.
“Coming in here nine years ago, Michigan State is a program I looked at and said, ‘Jeez, how do they do it?”’ Matta said. “I have the utmost respect for what they had done. The biggest tell-all is just standing the test of time in college basketball. It’s a lot easier said than done.”
Championships have shadowed the series in recent years.
With Matta at the helm, the Buckeyes have won at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title five of the last seven years. They’ve also played in the conference tournament championship game the last four seasons. Twice they’ve made it to the Final Four.
Michigan State, of course, has been a steady national contender throughout Izzo’s 18 seasons shepherding the program made famous by Earvin “Magic” Johnson and curmudgeonly coach Jud Heathcliffe.
Izzo and the Spartans captured an NCAA title in 2000, and have also won seven Big Ten regular-season and three conference tournament titles while making 15 straight NCAA tournament appearances. They’ve been to six Final Fours.
The Spartans won at home on Jan. 19, 59-56, when Keith Appling hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left and the Buckeyes mishandled a chance to tie.
“They’re a better team I think, in some ways, and they’re a different team in other ways,” Izzo said, comparing the Buckeyes then and now. “They’ve still got one of the best defensive guards in the country (Aaron Craft) and they still have (Deshaun) Thomas, who is capable of getting 30 any night you play him.”