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Ohio State, Holtmann know to stay wary of slumping Michigan State

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Michigan State's first game since a COVID-19 outbreak forced the postponement of three Big Ten games had longtime coach Tom Izzo searching for answers. The Spartans were thumped 67-37 by Rutgers on Thursday.

There will be no extra sales pitch, no Gipper-type of speech at the ready as the No. 13 Ohio State men's basketball team prepares to host Michigan State on Siunday.

Although almost every available metric indicates otherwise, Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann said his players don't need any extra provocations to know to expect a Spartans team capable of reaching the NCAA Tournament to suit up for the 1 p.m. tip at  Value City Arena.

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So while Ohio State is focusing on reputation and Tom Izzo’s history of getting the best out of his teams as the season progresses, there’s no denying that the normally well-oiled Michigan State program has thrown a few lug nuts and is seriously leaking oil.

“We know we’re going to see Michigan State at their best,” Holtmann said Friday. “There’s been very few coaches to get their teams to play as well into February and March as Tom. I know he and his staff are going to have them ready.

“It’s not like I’m going to have to sell that (to our players). They know the caliber of team that Michigan State is.”

Holtmann’s comments came one day after Michigan State returned from a 20-day COVID-induced break from competition. Without the benefit of being able to do more than have a few players practice together at staggered times, the Spartans traveled Thursday to a road game against a Rutgers team that recently lost five straight Big Ten games.

It did not go well.

The Scarlet Knights not only got their first-ever victory against Michigan State, they won by 30 points and held the Spartans to 37 points in the process. Michigan State finished with more turnovers (21) than field goals (16) and attempted only five free throws in the loss.

Rust certainly had something to do with it, but the Spartans were struggling before they were shut down. In its last game before the season was halted, Michigan State scored 54 points in a home loss to Purdue on Jan. 8.

The Spartans entered the weekend last in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency (92.1 points per 100 possessions), turnover percentage (19.7) and two-point field-goal percentage (43.6%). They have started 2-5 in Big Ten play for the first time during Izzo’s 26-season tenure.

And yet, this is a team that started the season 6-0 and climbed as high as No. 4 in the Associated Press top 25 poll.

“They’re not going to struggle the whole year,” Holtmann said. “They’re too good. They’re too well-coached. They’re too talented. There’s no question in my mind they’ll be a tournament team.”

The Buckeyes seem to be headed in the opposite direction. They have won two straight and five of their past six entering the game, with a marquee road game looming against No. 7 Iowa on Thursday.

“No moment or opportunity or team is too big for anyone (on this team), but also collectively I think our leaders certainly necessitate that mentality,” graduate transfer Seth Towns said after a Jan. 23 win at Wisconsin. “We’re locked in every single time we go out.”

Coupled with Wednesday night’s gritty win against Penn State, Holtmann has described this as the most physical week Ohio State has faced yet this season. Eventually, the Buckeyes answered the challenge against the Nittany Lions.

Ohio State has lost four straight to the Spartans by an average of 11.3 points, with the last win coming during Holtmann’s first season with the program.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

No. 13 Ohio State vs. Michigan State

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

TV: Ch. 10

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)