Before this season started, MSU's streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournaments appeared in jeopardy. Yeah, we heard the team's chemistry was a lot better, but only two starters were returning and there were a ton of question marks.
Now here we are, less than a month until Selection Sunday and the Spartans (20-5 overall, 9-3) are tied atop the Big Ten after Saturday's 58-48 win over Ohio State (21-4, 9-3) in Columbus.
To say this has been Tom Izzo's best coaching job would be a discredit to how well the players are playing, but he's having a blast coaching for them, and the Spartans are having a blast playing together. They're not the most talented, but they're playing as well as any team Izzo has had.
The game was never really in doubt in the second half. MSU took an 13-12 lead with 11:22 left in the first and didn't trail the rest of the way. The Spartans took a 35-25 lead into the locker room, with Payne scoring 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the half, but MSU's defense was the story of the half, holding Ohio State without a field-goal in a nine-minute stretch. The Buckeyes had three field goals in the final 15 minutes of the half.
But you knew the Buckeyes were going to go on a run and cut it close eventually. The questions was how MSU would respond. Ohio State scored the first four points of the second half and MSU's offense sputtered. Was this the run? MSU's defense locked down and the offense scored the next six points, opening a 41-29 lead.
Down 44-34, the Buckeyes went on a 6-0 run (over four and a half minutes) to cut the deficit to four. Was this the run? MSU went on an 11-4 run to extend the lead and seal things up, matching the highest-ranked opponent MSU has ever beaten on the road. The win ended Ohio State's 39-game winning streak at home, which was the second-longest in the nation, behind Kentucky.
The win actually was reminiscent of the football team's win in Columbus in October: A defensive slugfest combined with ugly offense, keeping the Ohio State crowd silent all day/night.
When you look at the lines of Keith Appling and Green, you wonder how MSU won at all, let alone decisively. Appling went 4-for-10 shooting and had zero assists to seven turnovers. Green shot 5-for-16 (missing nine straight at one point) with nine rebounds and two assists to three turnovers.
It was MSU's secondary players who carried the Spartans to victory, especially on defense. Payne and Derrick Nix frustrated Ohio State star Jared Sullinger to 5-for-15 shooting with 10 turnovers and four fouls. Sullinger did have 16 rebounds (eight offensive), but that was mostly because he he got rebounds on his own missed shots. It does not go in the book as a triple-double.
The Spartans seem to have Sullinger's number, as he scored 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting while battling foul trouble last year. No one player can stop Sullinger. It's the amount of bodies MSU can throw at him that make it a good matchup for the Spartans. Sullinger did complain to the officials every time he missed a shot, but the officials really called a nice game.
Payne, Sullinger's former youth teammate, finished with a career-high 15 points and didn't miss a shot (6-for-6) in easily the best performance of his career. Last year's Ohio State game was one of the best of Payne's freshman season, when he scored 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting.
As usually happens against Ohio State, Izzo threw a a boatload of fresh bodies, looking to take advantage of Ohio State's lack of depth (or Thad Matta's lack of trust in the bench). Seven Spartans played at least 19 minutes, with Travis Trice adding 12 minutes. By comparison, five Buckeyes played at least 30 minutes, and only seven played in the game.
While Sullinger was frustrated all night, other Buckeyes were nowhere to be seen. William Buford finished with four points on 2-for-12 shooting and Deshaun Thomas had eight points on a similar 2-for-12 night. Wood's defense on Buford was superb. Coming off the bench has seemed to provide a spark for Wood.
Against Michigan, the MSU big men played the ball screen about as good as any player could. Saturday night, they defended Sullinger with equal focus and success. MSU scored 30 points in the paint and held Ohio State to 12.
There was a point deep into the second half that only two Buckeyes had rebounds. MSU finished with a 37-34 edge. Both teams had success on the offensive glass. The Spartans grabbed 12 of 32 rebounds on the offensive end, while the Buckeyes grabbed 14 of 39. Branden Dawson and Wood only scored three points each, but Dawson had eight rebounds (five offensive) and Wood had seven rebounds (six defensive).
Six days after MSU held U-M to a season-low point total, Ohio State finished 14-for-53 shooting (26.4 percent) with a season-low 48 points — the fewest the Buckeyes have ever scored at Value City Arena. MSU finished 21-for-52 (40.4 percent).
Coming into the game, these were two of the best offensive and defensive teams in the Big Ten, statistically. The defenses won out, and MSU's was much better.
Looking ahead, the Spartans get some time off before hosting Wisconsin on Thursday. The Badgers and Wolverines now are one game behind the Spartans and Buckeyes, so the next game is just as important. The Badgers will be looking to end a road losing streak at Breslin the same way MSU ended a streak at the Kohl Center in January.
Six games are left, with three each at home and on the road. The Big Ten title could come down to MSU's hosting of Ohio State in the final game, but that's a long ways away. For now, the Spartans — and everyone in the Big Ten — will be focused on one game at a time.