Coming into last Saturday’s matchup with Iowa, the Michigan men’s basketball team was seldom reminded of its disastrous 2004-05 season. At the midway point of the Big Ten season, the Wolverines boasted a 6-2 record, already claiming two more conference wins than they totaled in 2004-05. And unlike last season, Michigan had largely avoided the injury bug, with only Lester Abram missing time during conference play.
But the Wolverines’ trip to Carver-Hawkeye Arena brought to mind some unpleasant parallels to the previous season.
Abram (ankle sprain) and backup point guard Jerret Smith (concussion) didn’t make the trip to Iowa City, forcing third-stringers Sherrod Harrell and Hayes Grooms to play a combined 25 minutes. With two members of its backcourt rotation out, and a third, Dion Harris, in foul trouble, Michigan played its worst game of the season, losing 94-66 to a red-hot Hawkeye squad.
The defeat was the Wolverines’ most lopsided since they fell by 29 points to Purdue on Jan. 30 last season.
“I honestly haven’t tried to think back too far with things,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “I haven’t even given (last season) that kind of consideration or thought. We’re just full-steam ahead, and we want to see where we are and what we can do to get better for the next game.”
After the debacle against Iowa, the 22nd-ranked Wolverines return home tonight, hoping for a bounce-back game against No. 19 Ohio State. And because Michigan struggled with the presence of rowdy fans in Iowa City, the trip back to Ann Arbor may be the perfect elixir. The Wolverines are 11-1 at Crisler Arena, with home wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin.
But the Buckeyes are not pushovers. Shrugging off NCAA sanctions, Ohio State burst onto the Big Ten scene last year, surprising observers and finishing with a .500 record in conference play. Now, the NCAA Tournament eligible Buckeyes are playing like a team capable of making a run into March. After storming through an undefeated non-conference season, Ohio State has amassed a 5-3 Big Ten record thus far, good enough to tie for fourth in the conference.
The Buckeyes feature an impressive inside-outside combination, seniors Terence Dials and Je’Kel Foster. Dials, a beefy 6-foot-9 forward, earned All-Big Ten second team honors last season and is one of the most feared post players in the conference. He comes into Crisler averaging 14.2 points and 7.3 boards this season.
While Dials bangs down low, Foster paces the Buckeyes on the perimeter with a team-leading 14.6 points per game. The 6-foot-3 guard is deadly from the outside – he’s made over 55 percent of his field goals and nearly half of his treys – and earned co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors after making 15-of-20 field goals last week.
“This is an old, strong basketball team,” Amaker said. “And then they have a guy in the low post (Dials) that is a bear to defend. And they surround him with an outstanding display of shooting from their team. So I’m really concerned with their ability to score in and out.”
The upper tier of the Big Ten conference is in a logjam. The top seven teams are separated by just one game in the loss column, so tonight’s contest will be critical in the Big Ten race. With a win, Michigan will regain a share of first place. If the Wolverines lose, they will drop all the way to sixth place.
“(The Big Ten race) is shaping up to be what we all anticipated in the beginning of the season,” Amaker said. “Everyone felt it was going to be highly competitive, it was going to be a tight race all the way through. I think it’s going to be very interesting right down to the wire.”
In addition to its significance in the Big Ten race, the game carries serious psychological importance as well. A decisive win will dispel any fears of a repeat of last season’s collapse. But a loss at Crisler Arena could send the Wolverines into a tailspin, reminiscent of last season, at precisely the worst time.
No. 19 Ohio State at No. 22 Michigan 7 p.m.
Crisler Arena ESPN