EAST LANSING - It is a stretch that will more than likely determine Michigan State's standing as a player in the Big Ten race.
When No. 18/17 MSU (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten) squares off against No. 11 Ohio State (13-3, 3-1) at 6 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN) at Breslin Center, the Spartans (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten) will be starting a stretch of four games to close out January against three of the four teams who have all shown they could end the conference slate as Big Ten champions.
After facing the Buckeyes, MSU will hit the road for games against Wisconsin and Indiana before closing out the month against Illinois, a team that has since cooled off after a hot start.
In facing OSU, a team that spoiled last season's Senior Night and a chance for an outright Big Ten title by knocking off the Spartans in the second of three meetings in 2011-12, MSU will be matching up against a Buckeye team that looks and plays a little different than last year's group but figures to be a major player in the race for the conference's top spot.
"It's almost become a little rivalry with us and Ohio State, just because of the great games in the last couple of years so I think (our guys) are focused on (just playing just Ohio State and not looking ahead) because they realize now that every night now is going to be probably a ranked team,'' MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "We're probably going to play (the next) 10 out of 12 against ranked teams so that's why you have to try and protect the home court.''
After beating a favored Michigan team in its last outing, 56-53 on Sunday, Ohio State served notice that the road to the Big Ten title may have to make a few stops in Columbus before the eventual regular season is champion is crowned the second week in March.
Led by versatile junior forward Deshaun Thomas, a 6-foot-7 power forward who leads the team in scoring (20.3 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 rpg), the Spartans will have to contend with a matchup nightmare that will force Izzo and his staff to jockey between defending Thomas with sophomore wing Branden Dawson or junior forward Adreian Payne.
"They play a small 4 really and that's what changes us a little bit,'' Izzo said. "Dawson definitely seems like the ideal guy (to check Thomas) but I don't want to burn him out all of the time but I do have more bigs that I can rotate around. So it will be Adreian and him that will be doing most of it.''
Assisting Thomas in OSU's early success, is junior guard Lenzelle Smith, who has taken his game from off-the-bench role player to a solid second option in the team's offensive sets. Additionally, Smith is the Buckeyes leading 3-point threat, hitting 27-of-64 attempts from beyond the arc as MSU tries to up its series win total over Ohio State 66 victories in 119 tries.
"We're going to try and contain the other guys and yet, put a lot of emphasis on Thomas,'' Izzo said. "But we've got to get to be more balanced where everybody is guarding everybody.''
And while the loss of perennial conference player of the year candidate Jared Sullinger to the NBA has altered some of Ohio State's philosophies on attacking in the post, sophomore center Amir Williams, a Michigan native, is starting to come into his own.
"It's a different team, that does some different things,'' Izzo said. "Last year's team almost always went to the post first. This year's team almost never does first.''
And of course there's Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes' glue at point guard, who provides strong on-ball defense and a stat line that let's you know he can change the outcome of a game with just one play.
Craft, a 6-2 junior, averages 8.9 points, a team leading 4.6 assists, plus 3.3 rebounds a game. He also leads the team in steals at 1.8 a game.
The Spartans, who are 40-17 in games played in East Lansing against OSU, have gone just 5-5 against the Buckeyes in the team's last 10 meetings.
If the Spartans are to remain in contention for another conference title, they are going to have to start hitting on all cylinders, according to Izzo.
While the team's inside game has shown more promise of late with the emergence and improved play of senior center Derrick Nix and Payne, Izzo would like to get his backcourt going in a direction that makes MSU's offense more of a nightmare for opponents to defend every game.
Right now, eventhough junior guard Keith Appling leads the team in scoring at 13.7 points a game, while freshman guard Gary Harris is the second-leading point producer at 12.9 a contest, MSU's post duo of Nix and Payne have provided the brunt of the offensive punch recently, leading MSU in scoring in three of the last six game.
"If those two guys play good inside and B.J. can move in and out and we get our guards playing a little better, now we will have an inside-outside game, which I don't think a lot of teams in our league have,'' Izzo said. "That's one thing we will have going for us if we can put it all together.''
Both MSU big men have put up performances of 20 points or better in games that have resulted in wins for MSU, which enters Saturday with a four-game win streak.
And as expected, Nix or Payne has led MSU in rebounding in all but six of the team's 18 games.
They will take a combined 18.6 points and 14.3 rebounds a game into Saturday's showdown.
"I feel pretty good about where they are and Nix has been playing pretty solid, almost too unselfish, I'd like him to rebound a little bit more but I'd also like to get him more than five shots (a game),'' Izzo said.
PROVING GROUND: Adreian Payne's 20-point outburst against Penn State on Wednesday night proved something to Izzo.
That Payne, who scored all of his points in the second half in 17 minutes of play, is capable of that kind of production every game.
"For him, it was a day of, you know, you've got to realize that this is ridiculous, in this day and age you can't do dumb things, you've got to listen what people say to you and you've got to comprehend it and then go out and work,'' Izzo said. "When he was staying focused (in the game against Penn State), did you notice he didn't get as tired? So it just kind of goes to prove what we're always telling him, that your mental attitude is a big as your physical attitude. He's definitely had more energy and I think he's starting to figure it out.''