Ohio State under pressure vs. No. 6 Michigan State
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Michigan State has its spot in next week's NCAA Tournament locked up.
For Ohio State, a signature win over the sixth-ranked Spartans might be just what it needs to clinch its own spot in the tournament.
The eighth-seeded Buckeyes (19-13) will get their chance to earn that high-profile victory on Friday when they face top-seeded Michigan State (25-6) in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago after knocking off Indiana 79-75 on Thursday.
The bubble talk has been hovering the last few weeks for the Buckeyes, something they don't believe will affect how they approach facing a Michigan State team that swept Ohio State in the regular season.
"I think that that conversation's been going along for -- they start bubble talk, I think, in November," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. "So that conversation has been going on for a while, and I think it requires some discipline. I'm not sure that we've always been great at it, but as much as possible we've just tried to focus in on trying to play more possessions and quality basketball than what we did the previous time.
"So, is it hard? Sure. I mean, it's everywhere this time of year, right? I think our guys did a pretty good job here this last week and a half."
The Buckeyes lost their final three regular-season games, putting them in the precarious position of needing another big win this week. It's no coincidence sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson was out for those three games, serving a suspension, but he was back on Thursday, scoring 17 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
"I just let the game come to me," Wesson said. "They were able to get me the ball and made an effort to get me the ball. I think it was just more of playing the game and letting it come to me."
Michigan State, which won a share of the regular-season championship, is looking for motivation at the conference tournament. Some could come from the return of junior center Nick Ward. He missed the past five games with a broken hand but will be back in the lineup against Ohio State, going head-to-head with Wesson.
"It feels great to be on the court fully," Ward said. "It's fine. The hand is good. The challenge has been probably the conditioning a little bit, but that's a little thing to fix. My conditioning isn't bad. Just getting back to playing."
Working Ward back into the lineup while getting some rest for the likes of junior guard Cassius Winston and senior forward Kenny Goins will be Michigan State's priority. And while some might be skeptical, coach Tom Izzo insists winning will take precedence over resting for the NCAA Tournament.
"We are playing for a championship, and any time you play for a championship, you better make sure your guys understand that is a different level, and that's part of the culture you develop in your program, too," Izzo said. "Do you (not) try to win the Big Ten and take the week off? We're not gonna do that.
"We're playing for a championship, playing for (NCAA Tournament) seeding, playing for our pride, and we're playing for the thousands and thousands of alums that will come into Chicago."
--Field Level Media
Updated March 14, 2019