Big Ten showdown

Last season Craft dominated Appling in the two OSU wins and Appling had the upper hand in the Spartans' lone win

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Big Ten’s first showdown basketball game of the year will be one of the biggest ever at the Breslin Center.

When No. 3 Ohio State puts its 15-0 record on the line Tuesday night at No. 5 Michigan State (13-1), it will be only the second time the Spartans have hosted a game between two Top 5 teams in the Associated Press rankings.  The other was on Feb. 19, 2013, when No. 1 Indiana beat the No. 4 Spartans, 72-68.

Rivalries are built on two good teams playing for something

Tom Izzo

Michigan State has a dynamic lineup led by guards Gary Harris (18.2 points per game) and Keith Appling (15.6 pts., 4.6 assists) and forward-center Adreian Payne (16.1 pts., 7.9 rebounds).

"They are a very, very experienced team," said Buckeyes coach Thad Matta. "You have to play great basketball across the board to beat them."

OSU lost leading scorer Deshaun Thomas from last year’s conference tournament champions, but gritty guard Aaron Craft (9.3 pts., 4.9 assists and 2.5 steals) is back along with forward LaQuinton Ross (13.6 pts., 6.0 reb.) and guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. (12.7 pts., 4.9 reb.). Center Amir Williams of Detroit Country Day is averaging 9.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.

The Spartans defeated the Buckeyes in the conference’s football championship game, and the two schools also have been basketball kingpins. OSU has won three of the last four Big Ten hoops tourneys, and MSU won the other in 2012.

"Rivalries are built on two good teams playing for something," said Spartans coach Tom Izzo. "And Ohio State and us have played for a lot of Big Ten championships."

Last year, they split the regular season games with both winning at home. The Buckeyes beat MSU, 61-58, in the tournament semi-finals in Chicago.

The outcomes came down to point guards Craft and Appling. Craft dominated Appling in the two OSU wins and Appling had the upper hand in the Spartans’ lone win last season.

Craft was at his best in the three games — averaging 15.3 points and 7.0 assists with .545 shooting from the field.

Appling struggled for the most part — averaging 11.3 points and 2.0 assists with a .361 shooting percentage.

When asked about Craft getting into Appling’s head, Izzo said, "Sometimes Keith does do that and that’s not good for Keith. Both are very good defenders. Keith can do some things on the ball that Craft can’t, and Craft can do some things Appling can’t."

Craft led the Buckeyes in scoring only three times last year, and two came with his 21- and 20-point efforts against Appling. But he generally focuses on clamping down on his opponents and distributing the ball.

"I admire that he’s figured out what he can do," Izzo said of Craft. "Usually, we don’t embrace what we are … He embraces who he is. He’s a great defender who runs a team and is an improved shooter. He plays within himself."

Appling also has increased his offensive averages and shown particular improvement in three-point shooting — going from .320 last season to a Big Ten-high .472.

The Spartans lead the conference in field goal percentage (.486), three-point accuracy (.393) and assists (18.9). They are second with 82.6 points per game.

OSU has held opponents to 54.9 points per game — by far the lowest in the Big Ten — and its plus-4.8 turnover margin also leads the conference.

"Their defense is what’s won for them," Izzo said.

MSU has allowed 64.5 points per game, but also has played a tougher schedule to this point with wins over Kentucky and Oklahoma and a loss to North Carolina. And the Spartans’ 7.8 steals per game are a fraction above the 7.3 of the Buckeyes.

"They don’t get a lot of credit for the defense because their offense is so explosive," said Matta. "Their defense is very sound."

Harris, Payne and Appling are strong two-way players.

Coming off a career-high 26 points at Indiana on Saturday, Harris could be the most valuable player in the Big Ten.

"Harris was unbelievable," said Izzo, who’s not prone to hyperbole. "He is a special player and he’s nowhere near what he’s going to be."

Matta, who also recruited Harris, sees no weakness.

"Gary’s a complete player," Matta said. "He does everything well."

Two strong teams with plenty of talent will be on display in the 9 p.m. game (ESPN) on Tuesday.

"You keep the focus on yourselves," Matta said. "Our focus is on what we have to do … And let the chips fall where they may."