The Big Ten race comes to a head Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio.
No. 3 Ohio State (21-3, 9-2) can continue on its projected path, separating itself from the rest of the pack by beating second-place Michigan State and taking a two-game lead with six to play.
Or the 11th-ranked Spartans (19-5, 8-3) can slow down the Buckeyes’ celebration plans with an upset that would leave the teams tied at the top. They have a rematch in three weeks back in East Lansing in the regular-season finale.
“Everyone knows how big this game is for us and for them,” Michigan State senior Draymond Green said. “It’s going to determine a lot. You start falling two games behind, that’s when that separation starts to creep in.”
The road to the Big Ten title certainly goes through Columbus these days, and the road to beating Ohio State goes through 6-foot-9, 280-pound sophomore Jared Sullinger.
Sullinger is averaging 17.4 points and nine rebounds for the Buckeyes, who take a six-game winning streak into the showdown.
Can the Spartans’ tag team of 6-10, 240-pound sophomore Adreian Payne and 6-9, 270-pound junior Derrick Nix contain Sullinger?
”This is a big game for me, for our team,” Payne said. “I’m from Ohio. Jared and I played on the same team before.”
Payne, a Dayton native, was AAU teammates with Sullinger for three years.
“Me and Nix got to come out and defend, keep him off the block,” Payne said.
As for whether having played with Sullinger before could help him now, Payne said, “People get better. Obviously, he has gotten better.”
In last season’s only meeting between the teams, a 10-point Ohio State victory in Columbus, Sullinger was held to 11 points, a season low for a Big Ten game, and to a season-low two rebounds.
Payne and Nix combined for 17 points and three rebounds.
“They’ll be amped up,” Green said of his teammates’ match-up with the highly-publicized Sullinger. “I feel like we have two guys who can go in there and compete with him.
“I haven’t seen a big guy who’s gotten off against them yet and I don’t plan on seeing one. I know they’re up to the challenge. I’m looking forward to watching them battle with him. It’s going to be fun.”
Here’s how some other big men have fared this season against the Spartans:
• North Carolina 7-footer Tyler Zeller: Nine points and six rebounds.
• Duke’s 6-10 Plumlee brothers, Mason and Miles: Combined for eight points and nine rebounds.
• Florida State’s 6-10 Bernard James: 13 points and 13 rebounds.
• Gonzaga’s 7-footer Robert Sacre: 16 points and seven rebounds.
• Indiana’s 6-11 freshman Cody Zeller, Tyler’s brother: Four points and three rebounds.
• Minnesota’s 6-11 Ralph Sampson III: 10 points and two rebounds.
• Illinois’ 7-1 Meyers Leonard: Four points and six rebounds.
Sullinger, of course, is the most talented big man that Payne and Nix have faced this season.
Part of the game plan against Sullinger will be to make him work on the defensive end.
“We think we can score in there, too,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team has lost three straight and seven of the last 11 to Ohio State.
Izzo has already challenged Payne and Nix to bounce back from what the coach considered mediocre performances in Wednesday’s victory over Penn State.
Izzo had praised the duo for shutting down the lane against Michigan point guard Trey Burke last Sunday, but he was not impressed by how Payne and Nix played overall against the Nittany Lions.
Nix really struggled, finishing with two points, one rebound and two turnovers in 14 minutes.
Payne had 12 points and five rebounds, but he also committed three turnovers.
Izzo blamed Payne and Nix for Green not getting enough assists for a triple-double.
“We’ve got to catch the ball and finish,” Payne said.
While Sullinger is the frontrunner for Big Ten Player of the Year, Green remains in the conversation.
Green leads the conference in rebounding with a 10.6 average, is eighth in scoring at 15.2 points per game and ninth in assists with a 3.6 average.
Sullinger ranks third in scoring and second in rebounding.
“This is a lot more than worrying about who’s going to be the Player of the Year,” Green said. “This is about who’s going to win the championship.”