COLUMBUS — Chris Holtmann doesn’t have to address the importance of this game for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes already understand the challenge Michigan State will present. The Spartans have struggled this season, but recently, they’ve been playing their best basketball.
Ohio State blew out Michigan State last month when the two teams met. But Holtmann and his team know a win won’t be as easy in the rematch, which will take place Thursday night at 9 p.m. inside the Breslin Center and on ESPN.
“The reality of who Michigan State is isn’t lost on anybody,” Holtmann said of the Buckeyes blue-blood Big Ten rival. “I think everybody understands you’re playing a really talented team and a Hall of Fame coach, a program that has had as successful as a run as anyone in any league in the country in the last 25 years. I do think there’s an element of that that is already in place.
“They had Illinois, who is fifth in the country, they had them down 19 last night, so I think we knew they were playing well, but I think had you not had that game, there probably would need to be a little more, in terms of dialogue. But the reality is we have some real facts right now to explain to them that this is not a team that we saw a few weeks ago. It’s completely different.”
This game almost certainly won’t be a blowout like the last matchup. Ohio State already knows that. Without a starter and on the road, the Buckeyes face a huge challenge as they enter the final three-game stretch of the Big Ten season. Before the game, Lettermen Row has the Tip Sheet with what to know about the matchup as the No. 4 Buckeyes prepare for their latest test — a road trip to Michigan State — in the season-ending gauntlet.
Buckeyes need production in place of injured Kyle Young
Chris Holtmann didn’t mince words when announcing a concussion will keep senior forward Kyle Young out of the lineup when the Buckeyes take on the Spartans on Thursday night, calling the injury ‘significant’ for Ohio State.
So how can they replace the production and physicality that Young provides to the country’s No. 4 team? It won’t be easy, but the Buckeyes have options.
“We don’t have a guy on our roster that plays quite like Kyle and kind of brings his multi-dimension, energy, rebounding and physicality,” Holtmann said of Young’s absence. “Obviously it’s a concern. That’s what we’ve looked at the last couple of days. Seth [Towns] will be important, Zed [Key]. Musa [Jallow], if he’s available, he’ll be important as well.
“You miss his activity in terms of pursuing rebounds, his ability to score in the low post and then defend a houser or defend a perimeter player and switch.”
Buckeyes look to continue winning ‘road’ games
The road slate isn’t the same as normal for any team in the Big Ten this season.
With no crowds in arenas and pumped-in crowd noise, teams across the league aren’t as intimidated to walk into some of the most daunting arenas in the country. Even then, life on the road in the Big Ten is not easy. Wins are difficult to pick up away from home.
Ohio State has found a way to win road games — a lot of them. And Holtmann knows why his team has had success away from the Schottenstein Center this season.
“I think it’ll take as great of a road effort as we’ve had all year with the way that [Michigan State] is playing,” Holtmann said. “We know it’s not the same. We know it’s not the same playing on the road. It’s just not. There’s not the same level of challenges. Having said that, you do look at some teams in our league, and they’ve played much better at home than on the road. And you wonder why we have performed well on the road. I do think it just goes back to: our guys have approached each game with really good preparation, good concentration, good focus. They understand the challenges, even though without the crowd, you’re playing on another team’s home court that they’re more comfortable with.
“The biggest thing is team maturity.”
The Buckeyes have won six-straight conference road games. A seventh-straight win on the road would be huge.
Ohio State must improve defensively
Ohio State has one of the best and most efficient offenses in college basketball. But the Buckeyes are not quite as efficient or productive on the defensive end.
Holtmann knew defense wouldn’t be this team’s strongest end of the floor this season, but the Buckeyes must find a way to improve in the next three games as they prepare to head into postseason play.
“It’s consuming me right now,” Holtmann said of the Ohio State defense, which has given up at least 80 points in two straight games. “It’s everything that I think about. That’s our biggest area of growth and improvement that we need to have. I think that was just an honest statement on our part. Knowing where we’re at and some of our overall deficiencies, we might not have the potential to be a top-20 defense like we have in the past here, but we can be better. I think that’s the challenge in front of us.”
If Ohio State can find a stronger defensive effort in the next month, it has a chance to make a run at a Big Ten Tournament title — and challenge for the Final Four.