Michigan State coach Tom Izzo knows that to stop Deshaun Thomas is the surest way to stop No. 11 Ohio State.
"Thomas is shooting the lights out. He's been really effective," Izzo said during preparations for his 18th-ranked Spartans' home game against the Buckeyes on Saturday night. "We've got to contain Thomas."
The thing is, no one really has been able to do that all season.
The 6-foot-7 junior leads the Big Ten in scoring (by more than two full points) at 20.3 a game. He hasn't been held below 14 all season, and he's been between 16 and 24 points in each of his last 10 games.
What's more, he actually likes it when opposing teams key on him, double-team him or throw some junk defense at him.
"I'm a mismatch nightmare out there," he said Friday. "They go small, I can post them up. If they go big, I can go around them or pick and pop. It's sort of a challenge."
Thomas was one of the leading scorers ever in the basketball-mad state of Indiana at Fort Wayne's Bishop Luers High.
He brought that success to Ohio State (13-3, 3-1), playing in every game as a freshman as the Buckeyes went 34-3, won the Big Ten title and lost in the NCAA regional semifinals. A year ago as a sophomore, he moved into the starting lineup and averaged 15.9 points while Ohio State went 31-8, won a share of the conference title and made it all the way to the Final Four.
Thomas toyed with jumping into the NBA draft but decided to return. So far, he hasn't hurt his draft stock any. Always a fearless shooter, he has become a much better passer, defender and rebounder, not to mention taking an active role in leading the Buckeyes - who only have one senior on the roster, forward Evan Ravenel.
So when he trots down the court the first time and sees a box-and-one or is bookended by defenders, he chuckles to himself because he knows that presents other opportunities for his teammates.
"(Opposing teams) just try to do as much as they can to put different bodies on me, to make sure it's a fresh body or a big body or a small body," said Thomas, who had a game-high 20 points in a 56-53 win over then-No. 2 Michigan on Sunday. "They do anything to try and confuse me. But I just take it as a challenge and try to take the right spots and hit the right shots."
A year ago, the Buckeyes had two-time All-American Jared Sullinger down low and wing William Buford on the perimeter. Then Sullinger left for the NBA after just two seasons and Buford graduated as one of the school's all-time scoring leaders.
Now Ohio State tends to look to Thomas first to get things going when it has the ball.
"Sullinger and Buford, they kind of played off each other and that really helped Thomas," said Michigan State's Travis Trice, an Ohio native. "This year they're running through him, so we're going to key in on him this year."
Almost every team has tried; most have not been very effective.
"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," Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. "I give Deshaun a lot of credit. I think he's done a very good job of kind of reading the situation and playing off of it."
The Spartans (15-3, 4-1) have regrouped after opening conference play with a loss at Minnesota, winning their last four over some of the Big Ten's bottom feeders.
It didn't look like junior Adreian Payne and sophomore Branden Dawson would see much time Wednesday at Penn State after Izzo told the pair they wouldn't start following a scuffle in the team hotel that morning.
Payne seemed to take the punishment to heart. The center scored a career-high 20 points in 17 second-half minutes, helping the Spartans pull away for an 81-72 win.
Now it's back home to the Breslin Center, where Michigan State is 321-45 since it opened in 1989, including 165-34 in Big Ten games. In Izzo's 18 seasons, the Spartans are 247-30 at home and 124-21 in Big Ten play. Over their last 29 games there, they are 28-1.
However, no one on the current Ohio State roster has ever lost there. In a must-win game last March 4, the Buckeyes escaped 72-70. They did not play in East Lansing in 2010-11, but the year before, they won 74-67.
Matta doesn't pretend to know why his team has had success in such a hostile place.
Told that road teams are 5-0 so far this week in Big Ten play, he laughed and said, "Hopefully it continues tomorrow and then resets itself going into the next week."