Thad Matta swears he doesn't have a secret.
"I wish I knew," he said Friday. "I wish I could pinpoint something and bottle it up, that's for sure."
But there isn't much doubt Matta is better at it than most other people. The Spartans are 321-45 (87.7 percent) at home since the building opened in 1989, and head coach Tom Izzo is 124-21 (85.5 percent) in Big Ten games since taking over. Michigan State has won 28 of its last 29 games in the building that houses the "Izzone."
The outlier in that group? Ohio State's 72-70 triumph a season ago on March 4, a victory on the last day of the regular season that moved the Buckeyes into a three-way tie for the Big Ten title and kept the Spartans from holding the championship outright.
It was far from the first time Matta has escaped East Lansing with a victory. The ninth-year head coach holds a 4-3 record when taking Ohio State into the Breslin Center, a mark he'll put on the line at 6 p.m. when the No. 11 Buckeyes face the 18th-ranked Spartans in yet another crucial Big Ten battle.
The Buckeyes still have trips to Michigan's Crisler Arena, Wisconsin's Kohl Center and Indiana's Assembly Hall on tap, but the visit to take on the Green and White in front of its rowdy fans still stands out.
"I would say it's still right there in terms of the toughest venues to play in," Matta said. "I don't like to think about the places we still have to go, but starting with Saturday night's game, it's just a great college environment."
The Buckeyes and Spartans are both ranked, and each has one loss in Big Ten play as the toughest conference in college basketball starts to see its schedule unwind.
The fact both are in the national polls could be a good sign for the Buckeyes. Since Matta was hired, OSU is 3-0 in the Breslin Center when each team has a number in front of its name.
Ohio State could also use a standout performance, as history shows. Last year, the man behind the win was senior guard William Buford, who lit up the Spartans for 25 points and hit the game-winning shot in the last second.
The trip before that, Evan Turner posted a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds as the Buckeyes claimed a 74-67 victory on Jan. 6, 2010. When OSU escaped with a 63-54 win on Feb. 3, 2007, Greg Oden had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and another East Lansing double-double was posted on Feb. 22, 2006, as Terence Dials had 19 and 10 to push OSU to a 79-68 triumph.
Of course, the most likely Buckeye to fill up the stat sheet this time around is junior Deshaun Thomas, the reigning Big Ten player of the week. The 6-7 forward leads the league in scoring with 20.3 points per game, a mark that ups to 22.0 in the Buckeyes' four Big Ten games.
"I'm a mismatch nightmare out there," Thomas said with his usual confidence Friday. "If they go small, I can post them up. If they go big, I can go around them and pick-and-pop. It's a challenge. They do as much as they can to put different bodies on me."
The problem, as most OSU fans know, is finding consistent scoring help for Thomas, whose current scoring average is the second most for a Buckeye since 1999, just 0.1 behind Turner's mark of 20.4 ppg in 2010.
The team's No. 2 scorer is junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. with 10.3 points per game, and he's the only Buckeye other than Thomas in double figures. Izzo has been on record as saying the key to stopping the Buckeyes is to slow down Thomas, and Matta expects the wily MSU coach to pull out all the stops just as previous OSU opponents have.
"We have seen a lot of different variations from switching to not switching to box-and-one to trying to sit a certain way on him, that sort of thing," Matta said. "I give Deshaun credit, I think he's done a very good job of reading the situations and playing out of it."
The bad news – Thomas averages only 7.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game vs. the Spartans in four career contests.
Watch Your Speed
When the Buckeyes last played Sunday vs. Michigan, the going was slow on the Value City Arena court.
The Wolverines had filled up the bucket against most opposition to that point, but the two squads played to a 56-53 OSU victory that will likely be one of the most low-scoring Big Ten games of the year. When all was said and done, Ohio State had only 59 possessions, well below average in an NCAA game and the second slowest OSU game of the season after the Rhode Island contest.
"There was a lot of good defense in that game," OSU forward Evan Ravenel said.
It would be hard to expect much to change in East Lansing. According to the sites that track such stats, both the Buckeyes and Spartans are in the bottom half of the country when it comes to possessions per game. Add in the fact that Ken Pomeroy has the two teams in the top 25 in defensive efficiency in the nation and it's hard to imagine the scoreboard pinging too far upward.
However, Thomas said Matta is OK with the Buckeyes going up and down the floor as long as they are doing it in an efficient fashion.
"We had turnovers, fumbling the ball, traveling and stuff like that (vs. Michigan)," Thomas said. "Coach did mention we can up the tempo, we just have to take care of the ball on offense. We can't throw the ball away. He preaches it every day in practice – execute."
Scouting The Spartans
Michigan State enters the game at 15-3 overall and 4-1 in league play. The Spartans lost their Big Ten opener at Minnesota, which is now ranked ninth in the nation, but have rebounded to beat Purdue, Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State, though none of those squads are ranked.
In nonleague play, MSU lost to UConn (46th in Pomeroy rankings) to start the season at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany and also fell to Miami (19th) as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Notable wins have come vs. Kansas (6th), Boise State (48th) and Texas (86th).
As usual, the Spartans pride themselves on defense. Opposing teams are shooting just 38.1 percent and scoring 58.5 points per game, while MSU is good on the glass on both ends of the floor.
Point guard Keith Appling runs the show. Though he's not the most efficient scorer (42.4 percent on twos, 32.0 percent on threes), he does average 13.7 points per game and has 81 assists. Freshman guard Gary Harris averages 12.9 points and makes 38.9 percent of threes, while sophomore swingman Branden Dawson shoots 55.9 percent, mostly inside the arc.
"I think they have done a tremendous job there and they've stood the test of time," Matta said. "They play a certain way. They'll have alterations to what they do tomorrow – they always do that, whoever they play – but you have a team that is solid. They have guys that can shoot, they have guys who can rebound, they have a strong low-post game. Appling running the team is as good as there is in the Big Ten."
--A product of Dayton Jefferson, Payne is averaging 9.8 points, shooting .750 (15 of 20) from the field, in four career games vs. OSU. He made all six shots from the floor and scored 15 points in MSU's win in Columbus last February.
--Payne is coming off a 20-point, seven-rebound performance in the team's Wednesday win at Penn State. He accumulated those numbers after sitting on the bench the entire first half with Dawson. The two roommates had a scuffle in the team hotel that resulted in the suspensions.
--MSU beat Ohio State, 68-64, in last year's Big Ten tournament championship game, the last time the two teams met.
--MSU's roster includes three natives of the Buckeye State – Payne, Trice (Huber Heights Wayne) and freshman forward Kenny Kaminski (Medina) – while two OSU sophomores are from Michigan: Trey McDonald (Battle Creek Central) and Amir Williams (Beverly Hills Detroit Country Day).
--Michigan State has outscored opponents in the paint by an average of 10.8 (35.8-25.0) points. The Spartans have outscored 15 of 18 opponents inside.
--MSU has led the nation in rebounding in four of the last 13 seasons (2000, 2001, 2009, 2010). This year's mark of plus-8.0 per game is fourth in the Big Ten and 21st in the country.
--Izzo won his 200th Big Ten game at Penn State. Overall, he has 424 wins at Michigan State, third in Big Ten career annals behind Indiana's Bob Knight and Purdue's Gene Keady.
--Izzo attended Northern Michigan, the school Ohio State is playing in hockey this weekend. Other famous alums include former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, former NFL coach Jerry Glanville, former NHL executive Don Waddell and former NFL coach Steve Mariucci, who was Izzo's college roommate.
--On the other hand, Matta is 234-68 since taking over OSU, a mark of .775 that leads the Big Ten in that span. MSU is third at 219-82 (.728). The Buckeyes are 101-41 in Big Ten play since Matta's hiring, six games ahead of the Spartans and tied with Wisconsin for the best mark in that span.
--Thomas had 21 points apiece in wins vs. Purdue and Michigan last week to earn his Big Ten weekly honor.
--Thomas has scored in double figures in every OSU game this season. He has led the team 13 times and been the game's top scorer in 11 contests. He has topped the 20-point mark eight times.
--Point guard Aaron Craft has excelled vs. the Spartans in his career, averaging 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
--Both point guards in the game – Craft and Appling – are among the top 20 candidates for the 2013 Bob Cousy Award, which goes to the best player in the college game at the position.
--Craft is just five steals away from tying Jay Burson's OSU record of 204.
--Matta is 17-2 in January the past three seasons, but his OSU teams are 21-36 vs. ranked teams on the road since his hiring.