Jared Sullinger’s perspective of Ohio State’s season has drastically changed over the course of the past seven days. Midweek, Sullinger thought the Buckeyes’ chances of capturing at least a share of their third-consecutive Big Ten title were dead.
After all, Tuesday afternoon Ohio State was two games out of the conference’s top spot behind Michigan State with only two games remaining for both teams. That day Sullinger spoke about playing for positioning in the NCAA Tournament rather than winning the conference.
Hours after Sullinger made those comments, the Spartans fell at Indiana to open the door for the No. 10 Buckeyes (24-6, 12-5) to tie for the conference crown. There’s a catch – all Ohio State has to do is beat No. 5 Michigan State (24-6, 13-4) in East Lansing on Sunday afternoon.
“It meant a lot to get the opportunity back,” said Sullinger, who admitted to being rejuvenated with Ohio State’s Big Ten championship hopes alive again. “At the same time this basketball team understands we have to come out and be ready to play.”
As much as Ohio State has to gain by beating the Spartans in Breslin Center, Michigan State has as much to lose. Though Michigan State already has at least a share of the conference crown, a win would give it sole possession of the Big Ten title.
Draymond Green will be honored before the game for Senior Day in front of a crowd Michigan State has yet to lose in front of this year. Green, who scored 12 points in the Spartans’ 58-48 win over Ohio State on Feb. 11 – snapping the Buckeyes 39-game home winning streak – doesn’t want to share the title.
“It's not going to be a cake walk,” said Green, the front-runner to win the Big Ten Player of the Year. “They're not coming in here and laying down and we're not going to lay down. We just have to make sure we come out on top, last man standing.”
Sullinger knows exactly what’s at stake.
“It is going to be Michigan State’s senior night, it is going to be their last home game, and they’re undefeated at home,” the sophomore big man said. “They’re also fighting to not share the Big Ten title. We’re looking forward to the task and we just have to come in there and play tough.”
There’s a third team that still has an interest in the results in East Lansing, as Michigan (22-8, 12-5) too has a chance to pull into a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings by Sunday night.
With a win at Penn State on Sunday and an Ohio State victory over Michigan State later in the afternoon, the Wolverines would capture their first Big Ten regular season championship since 1986.
Though Ohio State is Michigan’s most heated rivalry, the Wolverines will likely be rooting for the Buckeyes on the way back from Penn State if they beat the Nittany Lions. Michigan coach John Beilein, however, wouldn’t quite admit it.
"I don't know if I'll be rooting for anyone,” Beilein said. “But I'll be watching the scoreboard with great interest.”
Ohio State’s task of knocking off Michigan State could prove to be tough, especially after the Spartans provided a tough matchup for the Buckeyes in the teams’ previous meeting in Columbus.
With two big men in the paint to help contain Sullinger, Michigan State forced the Buckeyes to hit just 26 percent of its shots from the field (14 of 53). Adreian Payne, an AAU teammate of Sullinger, and Green combined for 27 points in the game while forcing Ohio State’s big man to turn it over 10 times.
Ohio State head coach Thad Matta knows what’s on the line, but he understands beating Michigan State on the road will require a much better effort this time around.
“We missed shots that quite honestly we have to make,” Matta said of the last meeting. “For whatever reason they didn’t go down, and like I said (Michigan State) was very effectively defensively. But when you play a great team like Michigan State, you’re going to have to make some challenging shots throughout the stretch.
“I think they know we have a challenge ahead of us. I think they’re excited (about the chance to win the Big Ten), but they know we have 40 more minutes of basketball and we have to play well.”
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