Basketball is a game of runs. Both on the court and in the schedule.
A team will hit a big 3-pointer, throw down a massive dunk or put together a dizzying take to the rim and all of a sudden, the momentum has shifted. Buckets — or wins — start coming and they seem to never stop. Or, as is much too often the case for teams in the Big Ten this season, shooting droughts and losses send a team down the rabbit hole of mediocrity.
Rarely though, does the season-long trajectory of two teams nearly mirror itself. Let alone rivals in the same conference.
That just so happens to be the case with the Michigan men’s basketball team and its opponent Tuesday: Ohio State.
Both clubs started the season off as hot as can be.
The Wolverines racked up some seemingly insignificant wins at home, then downed some of the nation’s top teams in The Bahamas. After its miracle stretch, Michigan held the No. 4 ranking in the country.
The Buckeyes, using a combination of bruising size in the paint, elite guard play and a smoldering defense, flew through the teams on their schedule leading to a six-point surprise win over then-No. 6 Kentucky on Dec 21. Standing atop an 11-1 record and a top-10 win, Ohio State held the No. 2 ranking in the nation.
To add to the deja vu, both teams beat North Carolina.
“I’m sure everyone recalls a time earlier in the year where we both were at the top,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Like I said before, it’s the beginning of the season, there’s a lot of season to be played. But it’s also an example of the Big Ten. We have a really good conference, and there’s a lot of season to be played.”
Then, the high of both programs’ success began to wear off and each team slipped into the unforgettable rhythm of losing.
For the Wolverines, it all began when junior forward Isaiah Livers went down with a groin injury, triggering a four-game losing skid. For the Buckeyes, the losing took the form of an inexplicable inability to hit shots. This accumulated into a four-game losing streak of Ohio State’s own.
Even the Buckeyes’ and Wolverines’ losses were similar too. Add up losses in Minneapolis to Minnesota and against Penn State and you have a better picture of each program’s loss column.
The team to pull both programs out of the losing skid? Nebraska.
The Big Ten’s punching bag galvanized each program at just the right time to fix whatever errors the players were experiencing in their shooting mechanics or defensive communication.
Perhaps the most baffling part of each team’s losing streak is the fundamental reasons why they were losing.
For Ohio State, this looked like an utterly stagnant offense. The team that waxed the Nittany Lions for over 100 points now couldn’t even crack 60 for four straight games. The shots refused to fall.
For Michigan, defensive miscue after defensive miscue rendered any offensive momentum or valiant comeback attempt null and void.
But when they’re on, the Buckeyes seemed worthy of their former No. 2 spot. The positives jump off the page.
“They have great inside play,” Howard said. “Their guard play is doing a really good job of shooting the basketball. They have pretty much four or five stickers I would say that can shoot the 3-ball very, very well. They’re quick. They do an excellent job of attacking the offensive glass. They’re an excellent defensive team.”
The thing about both teams’ flaws, though? They’re easily fixable — and both teams have proven they can overcome these obstacles. It all now comes down to which version of each of these programs will show up on Tuesday.
“The more we play to our advantage, I think that’s very important that we do that, that we not stay stagnant on offense and make sure that we communicate,” freshman forward Franz Wagner said. “I think when we do that we have an advantage on a lot of teams. But as you can see, how the season went, either you do those things and you win the game or you don’t and then we lose against a lot of teams where I felt like we could’ve won the game, and I feel like it’s gonna be the same thing tomorrow.”