CHICAGO — Tom Izzo loved the question: Is it better to be tougher physically or mentally?
“You better be tough mentally, and then we’ll make you tough physically,” said the Michigan State coach, who collected his 600th win Friday at the expense of Ohio State, 77-70 at the Big Ten tournament.
Now the waiting game begins for the Buckeyes. Will they be invited to the Big Dance? Probably. A First Four team that opens the NCAA Tournament in Dayton? Possibly.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
Regardless of where they land — NCAA or NIT — the Buckeyes saw in Michigan State a blueprint for how to build a consistent national contender: Be tough mentally. Think of the brain as a boxing glove, ready to outpunch any opponent whose mind lowers its guard.
It is the Izzo way. Is it the Chris Holtmann way? Almost two full seasons in, Ohio State fans should like what they see. Or at least what they saw during the last 4:21 at the United Center, when the Buckeyes closed a 21-point gap with a 16-0 run that had Izzo’s queasy expression matching his mint green sport jacket.
Yes, No. 8 seed OSU lost its way for a while against No. 1 Michigan State, allowing Sparty to turn a 40-40 tie early in the second half into the 21-point lead, but the Buckeyes never quit. They seldom did this season, which is a testament to Holtmann and his staff knowing how to push players’ emotional buttons.
“I love the way we finished the game,” Holtmann said. “We made some mistakes and turned it over too much, but I loved how we fought.”
The next step? Fight the entire game, not just in spurts. Holtmann pointed to the Purdue game two weeks ago as one of the rare times the Buckeyes’ effort went missing. Fair point, but there remains room for improvement. Turn four minutes of fight into eight. Eight into 15. To reach Spartans status, lengthy letdowns cannot occur.
Holtmann knows the deal.
“You need older bodies against this team, and older minds. When playing Michigan State that’s really important, because you can’t attack them with recklessness,” he said.
When wondering how the Spartans always seem to find a way to grind their way to the top of the Big Ten, begin between the ears. Then stay there when searching for ways the Buckeyes can inch their way back toward the top of the conference pecking order.
“If you can’t mentally take it, in sports and all walks of life, well …” Izzo continued, eyes narrowing.
He didn’t finish his sentence. Didn’t need to. The mentally strong thrive. The mentally soft wilt. Michigan State stresses the former.
Ohio State lost the littles against Michigan State. The Spartans were a little better than the Buckeyes in overall shooting (52 percent to 46.2 percent); a little better in rebounding (27 to 24); a little better at dishing assists (20 to 19); scoring in the lane (26 to 20); points off the bench (24 to 18); steals (eight to six); blocks (three to one); turnover total (11 to 15).
But ultimately what cost OSU was that it was a little less mentally “there” than Michigan State.
Fifth-year forward Kenny Goins shared the secret to the Spartans’ success.
“We’ve got a lot of high-IQ guys and guys who are dedicated to doing their jobs,” he said. “Maybe it’s not toughness in the sense of we’ll go out and street fight everyone, but in the sense that mentally we won’t let anything affect us.”
The Buckeyes are not there yet, but the last four minutes Friday showed potential.