As evenly matched as The Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans proved they were in their first two contests, you just had a feeling that Sunday’s Big Ten Conference Tournament championship game was going to come down to the final moments. The game, one of the best since the Big Ten started their postseason tournament in 1998, did come down to the final minute. Draymond Green, the Big Ten Player of the Year, hit the key difference-making shot, a three over Deshaun Thomas with 1:35 remaining, as the Spartans captured the crown with a 68-64 win in Indianapolis. With the win, Michigan State grabbed the #1 seed in the West region, while the Buckeyes were sent to the East region as the #2 seed.
Many college basketball fans are already several rough draft brackets in, but this game was such an entertaining contest that it deserves its due attention. These two are are so familiar with each other that it was a struggle for the team’s respective stars to perform up to their standards. For much of the second half, the Buckeyes and Spartans simply traded punch for punch in a fastbreak slugfest. Several different players emerged as difference makers, and at the end of it, I couldn’t help but think that these two battle-tested teams have a good chance at making a deep tournament run.
For the Buckeyes, as has been the case in past matchups, Jared Sullinger had a hard day against the duo of Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix. Sullinger scored just 4 points on 1-of-3 shooting in the first half. He played just 9 minutes due to foul trouble, two unconventional calls with a charge and an offensive foul for a blind screen. In the second half, however, Sullinger found a way and managed to put in 14 points by stepping out on the perimeter more. Sullinger did need 19 shots to get his 18 points, but he was able to be effective for stretches just as he was last week in East Lansing.
Meanwhile, the Spartans’ Draymond Green had far from a strong display against the Bucks. Deshaun Thomas turned in another pretty solid defensive performance, holding Green to 4-of-15 shooting and 12 points. Green spent most of his time on the post trying to back down the slimmer Thomas with little success. Still, when the Spartans needed a big bucket, Green delivered. Green added 9 rebounds and 3 assists on the day.
There were two major turning points in this game, one right after the other. The first swung momentum was for the Buckeyes, where they turned a five-point deficit at the 18:35 mark and used a 18-6 run to take a 52-45 lead with about 14 minutes remaining. In that span, they hit their first 3 three-pointers of the contest, two from Lenzelle Smith Jr. and one from Sullinger. They also used a Thomas three-pointer fueled by an Aaron Craft fastbreak, concluding with Craft kicking to Thomas in the corner and plowing Green for what should have been a charge. There was no whistle, and the Buckeyes had their largest lead of the game as Green sit on the floor for a while with the wind knocked out of him. Draymond would sit out for the next four minutes.
In that four minute stretch where Green sat, the Spartans had a 10-0 run led by Brandon Wood’s two three pointers and one assist. Wood, who averages 8.3 points per game, came up enormous in this game with 21 points, playing a big role in Michigan State’s transition attack. On multiple occasions, Wood beat the Buckeyes down the floor and wound up with a layup or a transition three. Wood hit 4-of-8 triples, and the Spartans hit 9-of-21 overall. Down the stretch, MSU made the decision to play Wood and Green on the same side of the floor together, preventing Smith Jr. from helping on Green and creating better looks for both. Had the Buckeyes not given that 7-point lead right back, I think the outcome may have been different.
In the game’s final two minutes, the Spartans just made one or two more plays that secured the victory. With 2:17 to go, the Buckeyes took possession down just two. OSU had two clean looks at 3-pointers, Thomas from the right wing and Smith Jr. from the left corner after an offensive board, that would have given them the lead. Both misfired, and the Spartans took possession on a jumpball for Green to work his magic. On the key possession, the action looked to be between point Keith Appling and Nix. Green went down toward the left block to fight for post position but immediately headed back outside. Thomas followed him to the elbow, but he failed to close out fast enough when the ball was reversed, leaving Green time to set and deliver the knockout punch. The next possession saw Thomas pass up a deep left wing three while in the air to kick it down to Sullinger. Sully could not finish over Green, as he weakly grazed the first off the front of the rim and missed the one-handed tap off the rebound. After getting a stop at the other end, William Buford clanged a three point attempt from each wing. Sullinger was fouled on a rebound and missed the front end of the 1-and-1. The Buckeyes played the foul game, but it was all over and in the win column for Sparty. You have to make shots late, and the Buckeyes just missed too many down the stretch, where their three best players all had chances to be the hero.
The Buckeyes did plenty right in this game. They outrebounded the Spartans 43-30, including an impressive 18 offensive rebounds. All five starters for the second straight game reached double digit scoring, though no one but Sullinger had more than 11. They trailed by just two at the half despite Sullinger sitting with two fouls and playing untested freshmen Shannon Scott and Amir Williams for extended stretches together. But, they were unable to overcome the fact that Michigan State had 14 points off turnovers while turning the ball over just 6 times themselves.
The Buckeyes will take on the 15-seed Loyola (MD) Greyhounds in Pittsburgh on Thursday at 9:50 PM. I’ll have more later this week on how far I think the Buckeyes will advance and why.
Let the madness begin.
(Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)