It might only be early January, but already the Big Ten is about to see one of its biggest games of the year.
No. 3 Ohio State travels to play No. 5 Michigan State on Tuesday night, and while the stakes not be too high quite yet — remember, it's only January — the hype is. And the quality of basketball should be, too.
This top-five matchup is just the latest in a ever-growing line of big-time get-togethers between these two powerhouse programs. In fact, the meetings have been so well played in recent years, years when both teams have reached these kind of top-of-the-polls heights before, that the "r-word" is being thrown around. So, coach Izzo, coach Matta, is this a full-fledged rivalry?
"I just got done watching our game against them last year in the Big Ten Tournament. If I wasn't coaching I'd say, 'That's a heck of a game,'" Izzo said on Monday's Big Ten coaches teleconference. "There's been some great games, most of them have gone right down to the wire. There've been some really good games, I think, that are very well played, so I think it's been a good, clean, hard-fought rivalry. ... I guess that speaks well for us that you kind of gain more rivalries if you keep the success because rivalries are built on two good teams that are playing, that are playing for something. And us and Ohio State have played for a lot of Big Ten championships in the last six, seven years or at least been right in the hunt."
"That's the funny thing. What I've found in my 10 years in the Big Ten: Everybody's a rival," Matta said on the call. "And you look at the success that Michigan State has had and we've had over the course of the last eight years ... we've had some tremendous battles with them, some great games. There's been great players on the court. The fans are always where they are in terms of intensity."
Ohio State won that Big Ten Tournament game Izzo referred to, though Michigan State has had the more recent edge, with Izzo holding a 21-13 advantage in the head-to-head matchups in his career at Michigan State.
For the Spartans, this will be the second battle of two top-five teams they've been a part of this season. They took down then-No. 1 Kentucky in the season's opening days as part of the Champions Classic at the United Center. But while showdown pitted an experienced group of Spartans against an inexperienced Wildcats team, this time around, Michigan State will see a similarly experienced foe.
Ohio State boasts the same type of experience that Michigan State does, and the list of players in this game contains names that have played in the Big Ten — and won in the Big Ten — for years. The most intriguing matchup, though, might be the point-guard battle between Michigan State's Keith Appling and Ohio State's Aaron Craft.
"Keith is obviously a four-year veteran in the Big Ten, and I don't know if there's a way to crawl into his head, if you will," Matta said when asked how the Buckeyes can slow down Appling. "I think you've got to be as sound as can, and you know he's going to make great plays. It's trying to disrupt his rhythm, if that's possible. I think from the stand point of the guys around him, he not only makes them better but they make him better. And I think that's the sign of a great basketball team and a great point guard."
Craft, meanwhile, is commonly accepted as one of college basketball's finest defenders. He leads the conference in steals, and he's been passing those talents along to his teammates. Who ranks second in steals? Ohio State's Shannon Scott.
"Craft has got a reputation for doing it. And I think probably when you play against him every day, by osmosis you get better, and I think that has really helped Scott. Those two guys, that's one of their strengths, that's what they do. Craft has an incredible feel for the game and never comes out of his stance, that's why he does it. Maybe the athletic ability of Scott helps him."
The Buckeyes are built on defense and are limiting opponents to just 54.9 points per game this season. It's an interesting challenge for the Spartans, who rank second in the conference in scoring, averaging 82.6 points per game.
Regardless, though, of who wins and who loses, these two teams are expected to both sit near the top of the rankings when the seeds are handed out in March. This might not be a season-defining night, but it's the kind of game that packs plenty of excitement nonetheless.
"It better not become another game, otherwise it's disappointing," Izzo said. "Yet again, you don't want it to be where it's the biggest game of the year because you do have to learn in this program that you're going to have a lot of big games. ... Two top-five teams doesn't happen very often here. So it is a special event."
"We've been very fortunate to play in a lot of these games over the last few years, and I think you keep the focus on yourselves," Matta said. "And our guys are smart enough to know that we have to play great basketball to have a chance to win, so our preparation is solely on what we have to do to play well.
"And we'll get in there (Tuesday) night and let the chips fall where they may."