Spartans still measuring stick for Buckeyes

Adam Jardy

There’s a popular screengrab on the internet from a Spider-Man cartoon show from the 1960s. It features two men clad in identical Spider-Man garb pointing at each other, with one obviously an imposter.

In discussing Saturday’s head-to-head matchup with fellow central Ohio big man Nick Ward of Michigan State, Ohio State sophomore center Kaleb Wesson referenced the cartoon as way of expressing the similarities between the two players.

Coach Chris Holtmann did not cite any internet memes or classic cartoons as he lauded the merits of the No. 8 Spartans, but if the picture in question had been shown to him, there’s no doubt which version of the superhero he currently sees in his No. 14 Buckeyes.

For the 2018 calendar year, Michigan State compiled a 27-6 overall record and won one NCAA Tournament game. The Buckeyes, during the same time, were 26-6, won one tournament game and also the lone matchup between the two teams. But just because the numbers are similar does not mean that Ohio State, in the eyes of its coach, is in the same company as Saturday’s foe.

“As a program, we’re not quite there yet to where we can expect those kind of numbers to be consistent numbers,” Holtmann said Friday morning at Value City Arena. “We’re not there yet as a program, much less in a league that is arguably the best league in the country right now. We don’t know what we are yet necessarily as a group. We’ll know a whole lot more in a month, but we certainly have a lot to prove.”

Against the Spartans, the Buckeyes will have their best chance yet to start learning some of those answers. Michigan State’s national rankings in most major statistical categories are so consistently high that Holtmann spent the first 108 seconds of his news conference lauding them while looking ahead to the game.

Wesson said he’s most looking forward to the physical challenge Ward and the Spartans present. Ward leads the nation in average fouls drawn per 40 minutes at 9.2, and Wesson is second at 9.1.

“They’ve got big guys, they’ve got length, and they play real physical and they post up a lot,” Wesson said. “That’s something we look forward to.”

When the unranked Buckeyes knocked off No. 1 Michigan State 80-64 on Jan. 7, 2018, it was viewed as a sign that Holtmann had them on the right track. Senior guard C.J. Jackson said photos from the win are on display throughout the arena and that it helped turn around a season that had started with a 5-3 record after a coaching change.

“We know this is why you come to universities like this, for games like this,” he said. “It should be a real fun game. We’re excited for it.”

In that last meeting, however, the Buckeyes had a significant edge in experience. Ohio State was the No. 135 oldest team in Division I last season, well ahead of Michigan State at No. 282. This year, the numbers are flipped: the Spartans are No. 135 and the Buckeyes No. 246. It’s one of the many perceived advantages Holtmann cited for the Spartans.

A game like this would go a long way toward establishing Ohio State as one of the nation’s elite teams. But, as he pointed out, so will the next few weeks of Big Ten play.

“Hopefully we can get there, but we’re not quite there yet,” Holtmann said. “Some of it is also this team right now is not quite there yet. You can take video from our games and see that where we’ve got a ways to go.”