Michigan Might Be the Big Ten Favorite, But Michigan State Isn’t Going Anywhere

    Michigan State and Ohio State entered Value City Arena in Columbus on Saturday morning as two of the four remaining undefeated teams in Big Ten play and

    January 5, 2019

    Michigan State and Ohio State entered Value City Arena in Columbus on Saturday morning as two of the four remaining undefeated teams in Big Ten play and the No. 8 Spartans left with arguably their best win of the season – an 86-77 road victory over the No. 14 Buckeyes.

    Playing without injured starting guard Joshua Langford, who averages a third-best 15 points per game, the Spartans endured a scary fall from Nick Ward that left him woozy on the bench and survived a career day from Ohio State’s leading scorer Kaleb Wesson.

    Michigan State’s ability to erase a seven-point halftime deficit and outscore a top-15 opponent by 16 points on the road in the second half should put the rest of the conference, especially the Spartans’ in-state brethren in Ann Arbor, on notice that the school is firmly in the Big Ten championship conversation.

    The Spartans debuted at No. 10 in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll as the highest-ranked team in the conference and nine spots ahead of the Wolverines, the second-highest ranked Big Ten team.

    But Michigan State’s opening night loss to No. 1 Kansas combined with Michigan’s undefeated start in the first two months of the season flipped the script as the Wolverines moved into pole position in the Big Ten entering the New Year.

    Even if it’s only for one day due to the Big Ten schedule-makers, Michigan State will sit alone atop the conference with a 4-0 record and a half-game lead over No. 2 Michigan and No. 21 Indiana, which will play in Ann Arbor on Sunday in a game between two teams that have a perfect, 3-0 record in conference play.

    The best positional matchup in Columbus was between throwback bigs – Michigan State’s Nick Ward (6-9, 245 lbs.) and Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson (6-9, 270 lbs.). The two are first and second nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes at 9.2 and 9.1, respectively, per kenpom.com.

    Wesson, who was hindered by foul trouble before fouling out with 1:52 left in the game, scored a team-high 25 points with eight rebounds. He had 18 points in the first half, capped off by a three-pointer just before halftime.

    It was the second-best statistical output of the sophomore’s college career, behind only his 31-point, seven-rebound game against Youngstown State last month.

    But Ward was every part Wesson’s equal, minus the foul trouble and three-point shooting. He had 21 points on just seven field goal attempts in a display of ridiculous efficiency. The junior, who entered the game as a 61.8 percent career free throw shooter, was 11-of-14 from the line.

    He tied his single-game career-high for free throws made in a game and his 14 attempts tied for the third-most in his career. Ward drew a foul on Wesson on Michigan State’s opening possession and he later drew Wesson’s fifth and final foul on a post-up on the left block when the Spartans were nursing a five-point lead.

    He made the Buckeyes pay when they elected to double-team him on the right block in the first half. Wesson and Kyle Young tried to trap Ward only for him to kick the ball to Cassius Winston, who swung it to Matt McQuaid for an open three.

    Ward suffered a scary fall in the middle of the second half and he was forced to leave the game for about four minutes after he collided with Ohio State’s Keyshawn Woods and Duane Washington while chasing down a pass in transition.

    But Michigan State managed to erase a three-point deficit and retake the lead with Ward on the bench. Winston scored seven points and assisted on an Xavier Tillman layup in the four-minute stretch after Ward’s injury.

    Winston scored a team-high 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting to go along with five assists and two rebounds. Reserve forwards Tillman and freshman Aaron Henry combined for 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists off the bench.

    Michigan, fresh off of an appearance in last season’s National Championship Game, has deservedly received the bulk of the national praise for any individual Big Ten program early this season, but Michigan State’s ability to beat a top-15 opponent on the road while playing shorthanded means the Spartans will have a say in the Big Ten regular season title race in 2019.

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