It’s uncanny that in the year that Michigan’s Athletic Department shortened “Ohio State” to the simpler “Ohio” moniker, the Wolverines drew 13-seed Ohio University in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bobcats are not rivals with Michigan in the same sense as the Buckeyes, nor do they present as talented of a lineup. Yet a mere glimpse at Ohio’s roster and its season’s accomplishments proves that Friday night’s matchup in Nashville shouldn’t be a cakewalk for four-seed Michigan.
Upon winning the Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship against Akron on Saturday, Ohio punched its ticket to March Madness and will look to bust brackets with an upset at Bridgestone Arena.
Here, we break down how the two squads match up, position by position.
Point Guard: Trey Burke vs. D.J. Cooper
Nobody quite knows what to make of Burke’s performance in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Ohio State last Saturday. For the first time all season, the freshman actually played like a freshman, getting himself into foul trouble early, committing a whopping eight turnovers and shooting an abysmal 1-for-11 from the field.
Surely, playing against such a stingy defense played a factor, and Burke should fare better against Ohio junior D.J. Cooper, who is not as widely known for his perimeter defense.
The Bobcat point guard is a prolific scorer, though, and he tends to be Ohio’s go-to guy. He’s the only one on the roster averaging more than 30 minutes per game this season, and he leads the team with 14.6 points per game.
Though those numbers are comparable to Burke’s (36 minutes per game, 14.8 points per game), Cooper is not nearly as efficient of a shooter. He typically relies on taking many attempts from the field, which won’t be effective against a Michigan offense that likes to eat the clock on its offensive possessions.
Shooting Guard: Stu Douglass vs. Nick Kellogg
Senior guard and co-captain Stu Douglass has an opportunity to prove that he is one of his conference’s best perimeter defenders because Nick Kellogg is likely to challenge him from long range. The sophomore has rained 3-pointers all season long, finishing up with an impressive 42-percent from behind the arc. He has also shown the capacity to drive when defenders get too close, and when he gets to the line, he’s lights out (91 percent).
Though Kellogg doesn’t possess quite the same talent his father Clark had when he was a starting forward for Ohio State in the early 1980s, Nick averages just under nine points a game. If he is not properly accounted for, you can tab him as that X-factor player for the Bobcats.
From Douglass, expect to see the usual — solid fundamentals, a decent shooting performance from long range and the occasional cut to the basket. It’s nothing flashy, but he gets the job done.
Wing Guard: Tim Hardaway Jr. vs. Walter Offutt
You never really know which Tim Hardaway Jr. you’re going to get. Will he pick his shots and attack the rim when the situation calls for it? Or will he settle for shooting and missing contested 3-pointers ad nauseam?
On Friday, Hardaway Jr. will need to be versatile in his offensive approach because he’ll likely be matched up with experienced redshirt junior Walter Offutt, who transferred from Ohio State after the 2009-10 season. In his first year back in action, Offutt has filled a Zack Novak-type role, leading the team with a solid defensive foundation and the ability to shoot and attack the basket on the other end.
The edge in this matchup will likely depend on which Hardaway Jr. shows up, but expect Offutt to prove his worth on Friday.
Wing Forward: Zack Novak vs. Jon Smith
Throughout his senior season, Novak has symbolized the foundation of the Michigan basketball program, and his presence in Ann Arbor has played a major role in the Wolverines’ turnaround over the past few years. Starting Friday, he has a chance to put an exclamation point on that turnaround by opening a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
And barring any Bobcat lineup surprises, Novak has a good chance to wreak havoc on the perimeter. The 6-foot-7 Smith is not known for guarding versatile guard-forward hybrids like Novak, and he could have trouble keeping up.
Smith may get some easy buckets underneath due to his height advantage, but he hasn’t proven to be much of a scorer at all this season.
Center: Jordan Morgan vs. Ivo Baltic
Ivo Baltic has been a rock for Ohio all season long, and Morgan may need help from teammates to defend him in different areas of the floor. Baltic has shown the ability to step out and pop the midrange jumper, and occasionally the 3-pointer (he has five on the season).
But then again, Baltic is no Jared Sullinger, who terrorized the Michigan frontcourt on Saturday to the tune of 24 points. Morgan has seen tougher players come through his territory throughout Big Ten competition, so don’t be surprised if he has a rebound performance against the Bobcats on Friday.
Michigan coach John Beilein is not known to rely on his bench. This season, Burke, Hardaway Jr., Douglass and Novak all average over 30 minutes on the floor per game. And the fifth starter, Morgan, would probably be closer to that mark if he wasn’t consistently in foul trouble.
That said, forward Evan Smotrycz has pieced together a solid sophomore campaign off the bench, shooting 42 percent from 3-point range.
Ohio coach John Groce uses an extensive rotation in his lineup. He’ll likely call on junior forward Reggie Keely to tangle with Morgan underneath at times, and he’ll rely on 5-foot-9 freshman Stevie Taylor to provide a spark from the perimeter.
Beilein should be a bit wary that the Bobcats are consistently rotating and running the floor with fresh legs.
The outcome of this game may be very dependent on how Burke handles the pressure of playing in his first NCAA Tournament game. But Burke has played on a big stage at every level in his career, and he’s about as cool and calm as freshmen come. It also helps that all of his non-freshmen teammates have tournament experience under their belts.
Cooper, Keely and Baltic all have NCAA experience with Ohio as well. In 2010, Cooper led the Bobcats in an upset over Georgetown in the first round, scoring 23 points.
But winning in March requires great team leaders, and it’s always hard betting against Novak and Douglass.
Prediction: Michigan 65, Ohio 58