Michigan State is about to play in its second top-five matchup of the season, and coach Tom Izzo is hoping the Spartans bring the right approach to the experience.
“It better not become another game,” Izzo said Monday. “Otherwise, that’s disappointing. And yet again, you don’t want it to be where it’s the biggest game of the year because you do have to learn in this program you’re going to have a lot of big games.”
The fifth-ranked Spartans (13-1, 2-0 Big Ten) host No. 3 Ohio State (15-0, 2-0) tonight. The winner moves into first place by a half-game over Big Ten teams such as No. 4 Wisconsin — with a lot of basketball left to play.
As a second-ranked team nearly two months ago, Michigan State beat then-No. 1 Kentucky. The Spartans have won six straight since losing their only game, a humbling setback at home against North Carolina.
The Buckeyes have defeated one ranked team, pulling away from then-No. 17 Marquette for a 52-35 road win in November after the game was tied at halftime.
Ohio State is off to its best start since the 2010-11 season — when it began 24-0 — thanks to its stingy defense that hasn’t allowed an opponent to score 70 points this season.
How the starting point guards perform could be pivotal at the Breslin Center. Both traditional conference powers have good ones with much different styles.
Izzo is hoping Michigan State’s Keith Appling doesn’t worry too much about trying to outplay Aaron Craft.
“Sometimes Keith will do that,” Izzo said. “It gets to be where those two get talked about and that’s not good for Keith. He’s got to just play his game. They’re two different kinds of players, both very good defensively. But Keith can do some other things — scoring the ball — that I think Craft can’t do. And Craft can do some things that Keith doesn’t do as well. “
Craft does a little of everything for the Buckeyes. He was named the Big Ten player of the week after averaging just eight points because he also averaged seven assists, five-plus rebounds and more than three steals without turning the ball over once last week.
Appling, meanwhile, looks for his offense early and often, both inside and outside the paint. He is averaging 15.6 points and is shooting a career-best .472 on 3-point shots.
“You know he’s going to make great plays,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “It’s trying to disrupt his rhythm, if that’s possible.”
Matta seems to accomplish what he wants to do against the Izzo-led Spartans more than any other coach in the conference.
Since his debut season with Ohio State in 2004, Matta has won more games (10) against Izzo than any other coach in the same span of seasons and has lost nine times.
“I have the utmost respect for coach Izzo,” Matta said. “I look at what he has built in his time at Michigan State and he’s done it the right way which is the most important thing.
“When you go into a game and you’re coaching against a Hall of Fame college basketball coach, I enjoy the handshake because he’s always got a couple nuggets of wisdom.”
And even though Izzo has done a lot in 19 seasons of leading the Spartans, he is about to see just the second matchup of top-five men’s teams in East Lansing. The first was Feb. 19, 2013, when No. 1 Indiana beat No. 4 Michigan State 72-68.
“Two top-five teams, that doesn’t happen very often here,” Izzo said. “It is a special event and you just hope the weather holds up so it becomes one.”
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter: http://twitter.com/larrylage.