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MSU men's basketball faces critical test against Ohio State following setback

February 23, 2024
Graduate Student forward Malik Hall (25) cheering with other Spartan players during a game against Rutgers at the Breslin Student Event Center on Jan. 14, 2024.
Graduate Student forward Malik Hall (25) cheering with other Spartan players during a game against Rutgers at the Breslin Student Event Center on Jan. 14, 2024. —
Photo by Donté Smith | The State News

Ahead of the final stretch of its regular season and the ensuing postseason, Michigan State’s men’s basketball is again tasked with responding to adversity. 

Right as it looked like the Spartans had turned a corner, winning eight out of 10 conference games and playing their best basketball of the season, they suffered a major setback at home against Iowa Tuesday night, falling 78-71 after giving up 13 layups and three dunks defensively while struggling to make easy shots on the other end. It was just the team’s third home loss of the season and the first since Dec. 5. 

As a matchup with Ohio State looms on the horizon, MSU (17-10 overall, 9-7 Big Ten) will look to get back to the level it was playing pre-Iowa. For head coach Tom Izzo, that starts with guarding the paint and making free throws, two areas absent from his squad’s performance against the Hawkeyes. 

“You wouldn’t believe this, but every night before games, we shoot free throws and we’re at 90% as a team on a regular basis,” Izzo said after practice on Friday

Michigan State shot just 7-for-14 from the charity stripe on Tuesday night, adding to its list of poor free-throw shooting performances this season. Several have proved costly, such as a 23-for-40 showing in an overtime loss to James Madison and a 7-for-17 outing in a three-point loss at Minnesota. 

The Spartans can’t shoot that poorly from the free-throw line and expect to beat good teams, Izzo said

On Wednesday, Izzo gave his players the day off of practice and instead, he said it was a film day. He was pleased with their performance in practice on Thursday and Friday, attributing such to their approach after Tuesday’s setback.

“Practice was good today because I think (the players) saw what they did wrong (against Iowa),” Izzo said. “They were able to go over it clearly, and hopefully they’ll adjust.”

The road ahead doesn’t get any easier for the Spartans. They’ll close out their regular season with Ohio State and Northwestern at home and road contests with Purdue and Indiana before traveling to Minneapolis for the Big Ten Tournament, immediately followed by Selection Sunday for the national tournament.

Although the Buckeyes (15-12, 5-11 Big Ten) are just over a week removed from the firing of their head coach, Chris Holtmann, their roster possesses all the tools necessary for success – young talent in the backcourt mixed with length and veteran scorers. That was on full display when OSU knocked off No. 3 Purdue in its first game without Holtmann. 

Another interesting storyline: Ohio State sent MSU home early from Chicago in last year’s Big Ten Tournament as the Buckeyes upset the Spartans in the quarterfinal. OSU has most of the pieces from that team back this year, and it was successful in the transfer portal this offseason. 

Guard Bruce Thornton scored 21 points in that game as a freshman and is averaging 16.4 points per game as a sophomore. Roddy Gayle Jr. pitched in 15 and is averaging 13.7 points this season. Jamison Battle, the best player on a forward and center-feeding Minnesota team last season, is averaging 14.2 points per game and is shooting 44% from three as a transfer.

(Ohio State’s) got talent,” Izzo said. “They got a point guard (Thornton), if you remember, kicked our butts last year. The kid from Minnesota [Battle] was better than he was last year. Roddy is a better player than he was last year.”

As it has in many contests this season, Michigan State's backcourt has its hands full from a defensive standpoint against OSU. The Spartans' guards will need to be more collectively sound than they were against Iowa, as the Buckeyes can score at will by committee. 

It’s a must-win scenario for MSU – at home, against a struggling group following a disappointing defeat. A loss could mean as much as sliding firmly into the “bubble” conversation for March Madness selection committees.

Michigan State and Ohio State will tip off at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 25 at the Breslin Center. The game will be aired by CBS

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