Big Ten Breakdown: Ohio State at Michigan State

(Originally posted at JustCoverBlog on January 19, 2013)

You wouldn’t know it based on national hype or rankings but, at the moment, Michigan State (15-3, 4-1) shares second place in the Big Ten with Michigan. The Buckeyes (13-3, 3-1) are a game back and in a tie for fourth. Obviously, sorting out a conference this early is worthless – will Wisconsin, the league’s lone unbeaten, really finish first in the country’s toughest conference? – but it is nevertheless interesting to see how a single game like the Spartans-Buckeyes clash can really shape how things could finish.
Here’s a breakdown of Saturday’s game at the Breslin Center in East Lansing (h/t to Kenpom):
Ohio State (13-3) at Michigan State (15-3)
Line: MSU -2

Kenpom ranking: OSU 10th, MSU 18th
Offensive efficiency: OSU 112.9 (19th), MSU 109.9 (35th)
Defensive efficiency: OSU 85.5 (9th), MSU 88.3 (25th)
eFG%: OSU 52.1% (49th), MSU 51.5% (61st)
TO%: OSU 16.4 (14th), MSU 21.1 (202nd)
OR%: OSU 34.8 (87th), MSU 35.1 (78th)
FT Rate: OSU 34.3 (206th), MSU 38.0 (109th)
Tempo: OSU 68.1 (113th), MSU 66.7 (178th)
It’s quite clear why Vegas, Kenpom and others assume this will be a close game: Both teams are very, very similar. Sure the Buckeyes have a slight edge in the efficiency numbers and the effective field goal percentage but the Spartans have the edge in offensive rebounding and getting to the free throw line. Both teams can play at a snail’s pace (see OSU’s 56-53 win vs. Michigan in a 60-possession game and MSU’s 59-possession game – albeit a loss – at Miami) or can run like the 1990 Loyola Marymount teams (OSU beat UNC Asheville 90-72 in a 76-possession game; MSU beat Tuskegee 92-56 in an 86-possession game). 
The key difference is star power. While Michigan State has the athletes capable of going for say, 25 points, the team is typically so balanced that no player takes over a game. It doesn’t help, of course, that point guard Keith Appling is 9-for-36 from the floor in his last four games (9-for-his-last-42 if you include his final six shots in the Big Ten opener at Minnesota). MSU so badly needs that guy who, ball in his hands, can will his team to victory. The Buckeyes have that player in Deshaun Thomas. And, even though Thomas has struggled to meet expectations, he’s still having a solid year. (Yes, despite him scoring 20+ points in his four Big Ten games he has somehow been pegged as not living up to the hype). It should be noted that Kenpom has him ranked eight in the KPOY (Ken’s Player of the Year) rankings.
Thomas is the key to this game. Period.
Michigan State will need to find an eraser of sorts to keep Thomas in check. It seems likely that assignment will go to Brandon Dawson. If Thomas gets Dawson in early foul trouble that’s an added bonus even if he’s not scoring 20-30 points. If Dawson keeps Thomas out of the game it forces other Buckeyes to try and lead Ohio State to victory.
Other than Thomas’ individual play, turnovers (duh!) will be crucial. Not only is Ohio State’s turnover percentage (16.4) one of the nation’s best, but a lot of those turnovers are dead-ball turnovers; only 6.2 percent of Buckeye giveaways are credited as steals for the opposition, second best in the country. That’s important because the “turnovers for touchdowns,” as MSU’s Tom Izzo calls them, are back breakers. On the other hand, the Spartans are once again dealing with a turnover problem. Giving the ball away on more than a fifth of your possessions is something that can be overcome, but when more than half of those turnovers result in easy baskets it becomes that much harder to win a game. (MSU’s opponents are credited with steals on 11.8 percent of Spartan possessions, putting MSU near the bottom of the country). With a defense as good as MSU has, allowing a team an uncontested two points is more than frustrating.
Interestingly enough, the turnover numbers are really reversed in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes are at 18.9 percent (9th in the Big Ten) while MSU is at 16.5 percent (5th). If that trend continues the Spartans should survive. If not it is safe to assume Ohio State will win its second straight game in East Lansing.
This will be Ohio State’s third road game in Big Ten play and it’ll be very interesting to see how things go in the toughest road contest to date. These same Buckeyes, of course, lost to an Illinois team that is now 1-4 in the conference after losing by two touchdowns to Northwestern on its home floor. (Illinois whooped Ohio State, 74-55, two weeks ago). On the other hand the Spartans will be playing just their third Big Ten home game and looking to stay unbeaten at home. MSU has wins over Nebraska and Purdue at Breslin Center, both games that were pretty close for at least the first 30 minutes.
This is a really interesting spot for both teams. MSU enters a stretch of the following: Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, at Purdue, Michigan. There are no gimmes in that bunch and that’s why, for a team that still has Big Ten Championship aspirations, holding serve at home is vital. That starts with tomorrow’s game.
For the Buckeyes this game comes after an emotional win against arch rival Michigan. Granted, Ohio State has had a week off, but it was still the last game and there is no telling what emotion the Buckeyes will have for the Spartans.
 The Pick: With the line as close to even as it is, Vegas is really telling you this game is a pick’em but giving points to the road team “just because.” I’ve been torn on this game all week. Every time I learn toward MSU to cover I think it could easily be a game Ohio State takes an early lead and MSU plays catchup but comes up short. Then I think, the Buckeyes just seem to have the numbers advantage and should win. All of a sudden I’m reminded how bad Ohio State’s offense has been in Big Ten play. In the end, go with the Spartans -2 if for no other reason than the Spartans are at home and just have the feel of a team that’ll will out a win today. 

Other Games Around The Country: 
Syracuse at Louisville (-7): Both teams enter 16-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big East, tied for the league lead (with Marquette). Games like this always come down to will and, in many cases, which team is really better. Louisville is playing like a national champion and has done so against a much tougher schedule tougher schedule so far. Look for the Cards to force close to 20 turnovers and get a lot of easy buckets en route to a double-digit victory. Take Louisville -7.
Creighton at Wichita State (-2 1/2): The McDermotts, err, the Blue Jays had lost three straight games at Wichita State before a 7-point victory last year. Creighton is a solid squad, the lone loss coming at home to an underrated Boise State squad. Wichita State, on the other hand, has two road losses (Tennessee and Evansville) that are puzzling. This game will be decided by whether the Shockers resemble the team that picked off VCU on the road in November of the team that lost to Evansville last weekend. I’m thinking the former shows up today, so take Wichita State -2 1/2. 
Gonzaga at Butler (+3): Not only are both these teams worth of the “major” team logo, they both have an odd similarity: They’ve both lost to Illinois, a team now on a free fall in the Big Ten. One of the best gifts Vegas ever gives is handing you Butler AND points. While Gonzaga is the better team it is criminally irresponsible to ignore Butler when it’s getting points. Take Butler +3, even though the Bulldogs might not win. Butler has shown it deserves your trust.
UConn at Pittsburgh (-9 1/2): This is the most surprising line of the weekend. It was just last weekend that I was all over the Huskies getting 8 1/2 points at Notre Dame. With its athleticism UConn should be in every game it plays (except against a team much better than it, which is what Louisville is and why last Monday’s game resulted in a 15-point loss). Pittsburgh is no Louisville and this game should come down to the wire. UConn +9 1/2 is the easiest call of the weekend.
 Around the Big Ten: 
Wisconsin at Iowa (PK): This is the perfect Vegas line for suckers. Wisconsin, coming off a monumental win at Indiana as a pick’em at Iowa? Jump on the Badgers, right? No so fast. While many teams have listed Wisconsin as their respective Achilles heels the Hawkeyes just seem to have Wisconsin’s number under Fran McCaffery. Iowa, despite winning just eight Big Ten games last years, beat Wisconsin twice. In 2011, McCaffery’s first year, Wisconsin needed a dramatic comeback to force overtime where the Badgers eventually won. Still, the matchup presents problems. Take Iowa to win straight up here only if you’re a die hard wagerer. 
West Virginia at Purdue (-4 1/2): This game has been mighty entertaining the last few years. Don’t expect to be thrilled today. Purdue’s rebuilding mode is going okay but the team just isn’t consistent enough to look like a real viable threat for 40 minutes. On the other hand, West Virginia can’t decide if it wants a spot in the NIT or not. Outside of a win at floundering Texas the Mountaineers have been brutal to watch. I don’t think I’d take West Virginia in this game if it was in Morgantown. Take Purdue -4 1/2 for some easy money.
Indiana at Northwestern (Sunday): No line has been released for this game yet but expect it to be around Indiana – 11 to -12. Coming off the home loss to Wisconsin the panic button is being pressed in Bloomington. That is, by everyone but the team. Indiana lost a game by five points i which it didn’t do anything well; Jordan Hulls didn’t hit a 3-pointer, spark plug Will Sheehey didn’t score, the team shot just 40.5 percent from the field while allowing Wisconsin to shooting 55.2 percent and Indiana had a 7-to-11 assist to turnover ratio. After taking a 4-point lead 88 seconds into the second half things fell apart. Wisconsin went on a 20-6 run and all the Hoosier could do was chip away. Heck, despite all the struggles Indiana got within a point a few times in the closing minutes. A few bounces here or there and we’re still talking about Indiana’s greatness and not nitpicking. Take Indiana to cover any spread -12 or less. Northwestern has the ability to make thing interesting at Welsh-Ryan Arena, but this is just a bad spot for the Wildcats. 
Other freebies: Florida State +5 at Virginia; Florida – 13 vs. Missouri; Harvard +11 at Memphis.
2013 College Hoops Year-to-Date: 7-2
2013 Year-to-Date: 12-5