Preview: (23) Ohio State @ Michigan State

The most intriguing Big Ten basketball matchup of this Valentine’s Day weekend comes in the college town of Denzel Valentine, as the Spartans of Michigan State welcome No. 23 ranked Ohio State to East Lansing on Saturday morning. Outside of Wisconsin, Ohio State may be the hottest Big Ten team in the conference at the moment, being winners of five of their last six conference games.

Ohio State enters this game with a 19-6 overall record, including an 8-4 conference record. Two of Ohio State’s losses this season have come against No. 5 ranked Louisville and No. 24 ranked North Carolina. This Ohio State team features a cast of seasoned veterans with lots of postseason experience.

Aside from this cast of upperclassmen, Ohio State also has perhaps the second best freshman in the nation, D’Angelo Russell. Russell has been on fire as of late, and is seen as a sure top five pick in this upcoming June’s NBA draft. Russell, a 6’5” point guard from Louisville, is averaging 19 points per game, to go along with nearly 6 rebounds and 6 assists per game. He is a triple double threat every game, and has a knack for hitting shots in crucial situations. He brings the pressure on both ends of the floor as well, as he also averages nearly two steals per game. Ohio State is also led by senior forwards Sam Thompson and Marc Loving, who are both averaging double-digit point-per-game totals this season. Ohio State won its last time out at home against Penn State, winning by the final score of 75-55. They were led by Thompson’s 22 points, along with Russell’s 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists.

Michigan State enters this game with a 16-8 overall record, including a 7-4 conference record. Four of Michigan State’s losses this season have come against ranked teams, including No. 4 Duke and No. 11 Kansas. This Michigan State team has been very inconsistent this season, losing to some very poor teams. However, one can never count out a Tom Izzo-coached team come March Madness time. This past Tuesday, Michigan State dominated Northwestern in Evanston on both ends of the floor, winning by the final score of 68-44. They were led by senior guard, Travis Trice, who came off the bench to score 16 points, including four three-pointers. Junior forward Denzel Valentine contributed 14 points and 8 assists, as well. On the season, Michigan State is shooting 47% from the field, but a dismal 62% from the free throw line. Valentine is their leading scorer, averaging 14 a game to go along with six rebounds per game. Senior forward Branden Dawson is averaging a double-double at the moment, at 12 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Outside of a potential Big Ten Tournament matchup, this will be the only matchup featuring these two teams this season. A season ago, these two teams split their two matchups, each winning on each other’s home floor. Michigan State actually lost to an unranked Ohio State team in early March a season ago, but ended up winning the Big Ten Tournament title a week later in Indianapolis.

This game will come down to defense. Both teams have shown their inconsistencies on the offensive side of the ball all season long. Both teams are very well coached, so it will almost certainly be a close game all the way to the end. While many expect Ohio State to be the favorite in this game, East Lansing may be one of the most difficult home environments for opposing teams in the entire country. Expect both of these teams to improve tremendously in the final weeks of the Big Ten regular season play. Both of these teams, when clicking, could make a surprising run in March. Game time is set for noon ET on Saturday.

*Section Photo credit to Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Jeffrey Becker,  USA Today Sports

(6) Villanova’s Defense the Winning Factor @ Providence
(6) Villanova’s Defense the Winning Factor @ Providence