COLUMBUS, Ohio — Chris Holtmann appears to have Ohio State on the upswing, and knocking off top-ranked Michigan State would be a signature win in his first year as coach.
But an upset of that magnitude will be a tall order. The Spartans (15-1, 3-0 Big Ten) are on a roll entering Sunday’s game at Value City Arena.
Since their lone loss to Duke in early November, the Spartans have rattled off 15 consecutive victories with a talented and deep roster.
“Listen, they’re a legitimate national championship contender,” Holtmann said, according to The Columbus Dispatch. “We’re a program that is trying to find our way here a little bit with a lot of new guys. We have not been through something like that as a group with a team of that caliber coming into our place. We’ll attack it and prepare really well.
“We’ll see, but I think in anything we’ve had our good moments this year, we’ve also been humbled at times, so we’ll see how we play on Sunday.”
Unranked Ohio State (12-4, 3-0) does have a track record of upsets against No. 1 teams. In program history, the Buckeyes are 8-11 against top-ranked opponents.
In 2007, Ohio State knocked off No. 1 Wisconsin. Two years earlier, the Buckeyes shocked No. 1 Illinois at the end of the regular season.
But those upsets came when Thad Matta was the head coach. Holtmann left Butler to replace Matta after last season and the Buckeyes are off to a surprising 3-0 start in conference play after struggling the past two years.
The competition hasn’t been as stiff as it will be Sunday, though.
“They’re one of the best teams I’ve seen on film in my times as a head coach,” Holtmann told The Dispatch. “There may not be a better one that I’ve seen. We’ll attack it with aggressiveness and be confident in what we’re doing.
“We need great preparation, but I don’t know if I’ve seen a better team in my six-plus years as a head coach.”
First place in the Big Ten will be on the line. Ohio State and Michigan State are tied atop the conference standings with Purdue.
“If you’re not hyped up and ready for this game, then I don’t know if you should play college basketball,” Ohio State guard Andrew Dakich said. “This is the biggest game of the year for us and we’re really looking forward to getting at it.”
Michigan State and Ohio State have a common opponent in North Carolina. The Spartans bludgeoned the Tar Heels 63-45 in November, and the Buckeyes were 86-72 losers in December.
Ohio State bounced back with two wins since then, the latest at Iowa on Thursday. Forward Keita Bates-Diop was a catalyst against the Hawkeyes with 27 points and 13 rebounds.
Bates-Diop is leading the Buckeyes in scoring (19.3 points per game), rebounding (8.9), blocked shots (26 total) and steals (18) while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 81.7 percent at the free-throw line.
Bates-Diop is one of four Buckeyes averaging in double figures in scoring. But Ohio State doesn’t have as much talent up and down the roster as Michigan State.
“A lot of teams, they don’t have great depth like us,” Spartans standout Miles Bridges said. “We’ve got so many guys that can come off of the bench and do great things for us.”
Bridges is one of the top players in the country. He’s averaging 16.9 points and 7.7 rebounds.
Right behind Bridges is forward Nick Ward, who is averaging 15.4 points and 7.4 rebounds. Five Spartans are scoring in double figures.
Sunday’s game will be a homecoming for Ward, who hails from Gahanna in suburban Columbus.
Ward wants to play better than he did last season as a freshman in Michigan State’s visit to Ohio State. In that game, he managed just nine points and four rebounds and was saddled with four fouls.
“Last year I didn’t let it come to me,” Ward told reporters. “I just went and got it.”
Ward has played more consistently as a sophomore and changed his approach. In Thursday’s win over Maryland, Ward made 6 of 8 shots from the field and scored 17 points.
“Just keep a mellow head,” Ward said. “Things may not go your way all the time, so keep a mellow head.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo expects Ward to be much better this time around. He has seen Ward become a better shooter who avoids forcing bad shots.
“I think you’ll see a different Nick,” Izzo said. “I think you’ll see a different Nick in the way he handles things this time because he has been pretty damn consistent. … Now we’re going to see how much he’s grown.”