Few batted an eyelash when Michigan grabbed a 43-23 lead over Ohio State in Columbus during their early-season coference matchup.
The Buckeyes were a rebuilding squad, led by a first-year coach. The Wolverines appeared primed to grab a 2-0 start in the early conference window, asserting themselves as an elite team in the Big Ten.
Instead, Ohio State found a wave of momentum, riding it all the way to a stunning 71-62 win. Since then, the Buckeyes have risen to the top of the conference, entering a neck-and-neck Big Ten regular season title race. With wins over Purdue and Michigan State, Ohio State has become the surprise of the conference, while Michigan still looks back longingly at that game and what could have been.
Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson put it succinctly: “That game stuck with us pretty much all year.”
Sunday, the Wolverines will have their shot at revenge.
The Daily reviewed the tape and identified three plays that underscored the matchups and adjustments that swung the first game, and how they could impact the rematch Sunday.
This is the third consecutive trip down the court with pick-and-roll action with Charles Matthews and Moritz Wagner, each producing a different positive outcome. The first led to an easy Wagner layup. The second, an open three (that he missed) on a quick pop. This time down the court, the action begins a little less deliberately, though. Matthews catches the ball on the wing with 23 seconds on the shot clock, surveying a typical “four-out” look with Wagner on the near elbow. He dishes to Wagner and takes a few steps toward the corner before darting back to utilize the ball screen. Jae’Sean Tate — the Buckeyes’ defender of choice on Matthews — recovers with little issue.
But here’s where freshman Kaleb Wesson, guarding Wagner, has a decision to make. Does he hedge Matthews’ drive, risking an open 3-pointer from Wagner? Or does he stay true, trusting Tate to fight through the screen and recover positioning? Wesson chooses the latter, and once Matthews sees that, he decisively attacks the basket, finishing with an easy floater off the glass.
There are several caveats with attacking this matchup with a “Matthews-Wagner pick-and-roll” emphasis. For one, at the time of that game in early December, Matthews was shooting 53.3 percent from the field and 35 percent from three. Those numbers have since dipped, and he’s coming off a listless 4-for-16 performance against Iowa. He’s hit a slump.
But if Michigan does choose to heavily emphasize that pick-and-roll combo, it will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes approach defending it. Ohio State has no one on its roster above 6’9, which, of course, lends some clear disadvantages. One advantage? Many of its defenders have the capability of switching screens. The Buckeyes got torched through much of the first half with their pick-and-roll defense, and you can be sure they won’t make the same mistake twice. In the second half of that game, during its frenzied comback, the Buckeyes completely startled the Wolverines’ offense once they began switching those screens. Michigan scored just 19 points in the second half, largely because of this change in strategy. It seems inevitable — especially given the success Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska had doing so — that Ohio State will switch from the outset. This is nothing John Beilein and his team are unfamiliar with.
Will Michigan be able to handle it? Well, that just might be the defining question of the season.
After Wagner had drained a three on one end to extend the lead to 43-23, he came down the court with a smile on his face, clapping his hands. What happened next, though, would turn the tide of the game, which went from a blowout to a tight game to a disastrous collapse in a heartbeat.
It starts with a pick-and-roll between Wesson and guard Andrew Dakich. Matthews spies Wesson rolling, and cheats in the lane, hovering between the ball and his defender. The trouble with that, though, comes when forward Keita Bates-Diop creeps up behind Matthews and spots up at the 3-point line. Robinson is visibly calling for Matthews to switch onto Bates-Diop, but Matthews doesn’t respond. The lengthy Bates-Diop rises up and drains a three over Matthews.
Bad miscommunication, but excusable, right?
The play wasn’t over.
In the jumbled mess, guard Jaaron Simmons got matched up on the block with the 270-pound Wesson as the shot goes up. Instinctively, Simmons hooks Wesson, who had established firm position over the much smaller Simmons. The whistle is blown while the shot is in mid-air, awarding Wesson a one-and-one. He drains both. Suddenly a 20-point lead was trimmed by a quarter with a rare five-point possession.
Again, the missed switch is excusable in an early December conference game. Bates-Diop, a candidate for the Naismith Award, will punish any space awarded to him — on the block or from beyond the arc. The Simmons foul is sloppy, sure. Put together, it’s a forgettable defensive possession.
But really, the trouble comes in the inability to regain composure after the fact. On the next possession, Tate threw down a monster dunk on Wagner. The crowd was alive. The lead was cut down from 20 to 13 in a short span. Not even a halftime break shortly after could provide Michigan the footing it desperately needed to regain. A relatively inexperienced team needed someone to stop the bleeding. Instead, Michigan bled out, scoring just 19 points the rest of the way.
Nearly every Michigan player say that game still sticks with them. They feel it was a game they gave away, and their inability to overcome a wave of momentum is the chief reason why.
Freshman guard Eli Brooks inbounds the ball and curls around a screen, catching it on the wing. He launches the shot from several feet behind the 3-point line, and it clanks the backboard, hardly grazing the rim. Tate emeges with the rebound and gallops past halfcourt with two teammates and three Michigan defenders waiting. Robinson picks up Tate around the 3-point line. Tate hesitates, dipping his shoulder as if indicating he’s trying to take Robinson to the left. Instead, he jabs and angles toward the lane with a direct path to the hoop.
Robinson, trying to recover to cut off that angle, fouls Tate as he attempts to lay the ball in. Tate converts the easy and-one bucket to cut the lead to one.
Ohio State runs on its two dynamic wings, Tate and Bates-Diop, who present an unenviable matchup for just about everyone in the country. Michigan, especially, had trouble defending the duo, who will assuredly play a large role in Sunday’s clash.
Robinson and Matthews rotated on each, struggling to contain the versatile Buckeyes. Often, Ohio State runs relatively basic action to let its players make plays. That can manifest itself in simple isolation from deep two-point range, or post ups in the lane. Each is capable of elevating over Robinson or Matthews and knocking down a midrange jumper, or muscling in the lane for a quick two points. Each shoots around 59 percent from two-point range, and does so at a high volume. In this regard, there’s little to do but hope Robinson, Matthews and Livers (who played sparingly in the first matchup) can hold resolute in their individual matchups.
This is what makes Ohio State so tough to defend, and is Michigan’s toughest challenge in its hopes to claim revenge after the collapse in Columbus.