February 24, 2013

Spartans sustain success in Big Ten

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When Thad Matta came to Ohio State in the summer of 2004, the Buckeyes' head coach knew that he wanted to emulate the success that Tom Izzo had found at Michigan State. Nearly nine years later, it'd be hard to argue that Matta hasn't done just that.

With five Big Ten championships, four Sweet Sixteens, and two Final Four appearances in an eight year span, OSU has developed into one of the top programs in the Big Ten. But with Izzo adding three conference titles, five Sweet 16s, and three Final Fours in that same timespan, the Buckeyes find themselves still looking up to the Spartans.

"What they have built there, just in terms of the environment that they have, I think we're definitely closing in on that," Matta said of Michigan State. "I have the utmost respect for what they've done. I think the biggest tell-all is just standing the test of time in college basketball. It's a lot easier said than done."

Matta may have an even greater appreciation for the Spartans' sustained success this season more than any other. After winning at least a share of each of the past three Big Ten regular season championships, Ohio State finds itself in fifth place in the conference standings, while Michigan State sits in second place, just a game back of Indiana.

The next Hoosiers' win or Buckeyes' loss will eliminate OSU from contention for a fourth consecutive Big Ten title, something that hasn't been accomplished since 2001. The last program to accomplish such feat? None other than Michigan State, who won four conference titles from 1998-2001.

"When I got here, that was one of the few programs that was probably going to stand the test of time that we were probably going to have to compete with if we wanted to do this thing like we had set out to," Matta said.

Although Ohio State could be on the outside looking in of the conference title race after tonight, the Buckeyes still feel as though they have plenty to play for. Aside from staying in contention for both the conference crown and a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament, OSU is looking to avenge the 59-56 loss that it suffered during its trip to East Lansing on Jan. 19.

"It's like there's always a trophy on the line every time you play one of the top-tier teams in this conference," Buckeyes guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. "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."

Doing that may be easier said than done.

In Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, Gary Harris, and Branden Dawson, the fourth-ranked Spartans possess arguably the most lethal combination of talent and experience in all of the Big Ten. Coming off of a loss to Indiana on Tuesday, MSU figures to be focused now more than ever, and Smith knows that it will be tough to key in on just any one of the Spartans' key contributors.

"It's not just stop their guards. You have to stop their guards and their bigs, so hopefully we can stick to our principles, what have normally done in the past which has led us to be successful against teams like this," Smith said. "All around, they have a great team. This is one of the top teams I'm talking about where everybody's worrying about everybody."

This isn't the first time an Ohio State player has said something like this about a Michigan State team. And it likely won't be the last, either.


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