It's OK to talk about Saturday's showdown with Ohio State now.
As bad as Penn State has been this season, this still looked like a trap game. After going up big early, Penn State cut the lead to five in the second half. But MSU finished on a 20-6 run en route to a 77-57 win, matching last year's win total with its 19th of the season.
The game was ugly early as MSU (19-5 overall, 8-3 Big Ten) started 1-for-9 from the floor. But Penn State (10-15, 2-10) started 0-for-8 and didn't score its first points until nearly eight minutes into the game. MSU defense was stifling, taking a 33-19 lead into halftime.
I brought up the point that MSU had only given up at least 30 points in two of its last 10 halves of play, but that's when the defense let up. After extending the lead to 46-24, the Spartans got a bit lazy, and Penn State went on a 23-6 run, cutting the lead to five points with 9:18 to play. But MSU started to go inside to Draymond Green and finished the game outscoring Penn State 25-10 the rest of the way.
Coming off of Michigan and looking ahead to Ohio State, it wouldn't be surprising to see MSU look past Penn State, but Izzo said his team practiced well all week. In warm-ups, he gathered his team because they weren't warming up with energy. The focus was in and out during the game, as Izzo said his team was "bad, good, bad, good" and so forth.
Just like against Michigan on Sunday, the Spartans pounded the glass, finishing with 44-25 advantage on the boards. MSU grabbed 17 of 36 rebounds on the offense end (47 percent) and 27 of 33 on the defensive end (82 percent). The offense rebounding gave MSU an 18-1 advantage in second-half points. The Spartans had 10 first-half turnovers, but had just four in the second half.
Last year's Penn State game was when Green got his first triple-double, and he was close to doing the same this year, finishing with 23 points on 6-of-15 shooting with 12 rebounds and five assists. However, he went just 9-for-14 from the free-throw line. Since his missed free throws late at Wisconsin, Green is 18-for-30 (60 percent) from the charity stripe.
Adreian Payne tied a career-high with 12 points, including an impressive 6-for-8 performance from the free-throw line.
Brandon Dawson has figured things out. He finished with 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting to go with seven rebounds. It was Dawson's fifth straight game in double figures, as he's becoming the reliable No. 3 scorer on this team, along with a beast on the glass.
Keith Appling quietly had a very solid game. He scored 10 points on 2-of-4 shooting (including his first three-pointer in three weeks) to go with seven assists and just one turnover. He also frustrated Penn State's Tim Frazier all night. Frazier came into the night averaging with 18 points and scored 19 Wednesday, but that was on 6-of-18 shooting. Frazier also had six turnovers (with seven assists).
Now it's on to the showdown in Columbus. The Buckeyes are coming off an 87-84 home win against Purdue in which the defense looked very questionable. I'll write a preview for that game later this week, but it should be a good one. The Spartans are one game behind the Buckeyes in the Big Ten standings. But looking farther down the road, MSU plays back-to-back games against ranked teams, and three of its next four games in the road.
When the season started, who could have imagined the Spartans playing for first place in the Big Ten in mid-February? It's a testament to the chemistry and collective focus of this team. Can't wait.