Football, finally, has had to take a back seat at Ohio State.

Fullbacks and linebackers have been forgotten. This winter, for the first time in a long while, the guards and centers being talked about around campus belong to the basketball team, ranked 13th in the country.

And Saturday night, when they play 10th-ranked Michigan State here in St. John Arena, the Buckeyes can take a big step toward winning their first Big Ten basketball title in eight years.

Ohio State, the football factory, leads the conference's wild basketball championship chase with a 9-2 record. Iowa and Purdue are tied for second at 8-3 and Michigan State, a preseason pretender to the national crown, is third at 7-4.

The Spartans beat the Buckeyes in East Lansing Feb. 1 and Ohio State, with a capacity crowd of 13,500 expected to cheer it on this time, is ready for revenge.

"They played very. very well against us up there," said Ohio State Coach Eldon Miller. "We expect another tough game Saturday. But where can you find an easy game in this conference? If you don't go into a game expecting it to be tough, you'll get wiped out."

Michigan State, with spectacular sophomore Earvin Johnson, was expected to be good this season. The Buckeyes, 14-6 overall, are a large surprise.

They started receiving national attention when they beat Duke, 90-84, in the Holiday Tournament at Madison Square Garden in December.

Ohio State then bolted to eight straight conference victories before Michigan State and Indiana slowed the Buckeyes with back-to-back defeats last week.

Ohio State starts four sophomores -- Herb Williams, Carter Scott, Todd Penn and Jim Smith -- and junior Kelvin Ransey, the man who makes things happen.

Ransey looks like the New Jersey Nets' star, John Williamson, and plays a similar rough-house game. He is a muscular, aggressive type who wants the ball when the game is on the line.

Ransey scored his team's last six points in Thursday's 63-60 victory over Michigan, which broke the two-game losing streak and gave Ohio State sole possession of first place in the conference.

The 6-foot-1 Ransey is averaging 22 points a game. Williams, the 6-10 center, is scoring 20.

Michigan State has struggled at times and won its first conference game on the road Thursday, a 60-57 victory at Iowa.

The Spartans' show revolves around the 6-8 Johnson, a guard. He had 12 points, 13 rebounds and four assists against Iowa and, for the season, is averaging 15 points, 6.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists.

The Spartans raced to a 7-1 record, losing only to North Carolina by one point in Chapel Hill, and were ranked No. 1 for two weeks.

Then they went on the road in the Big Ten and lost back-to-back twopoint decisions at Illinois and at Purdue. The Spartans returned home to beat Indiana and Iowa, then hit the road again and lost at Michigan and Northwestern. They have won four straight since, however, and are 15-5 overall.

Johnson, bothered by a sprained foot the last few weeks, is nearly 100 percent now and Coach Jud Heathcote said, "This is the game we have to have to get back into the race. If we win, we can win the conference. If we don't, I don't think anyone will catch Ohio State."