A game between two fierce rivals — one of them looking for payback — complete with significant Big Ten championship implications and ESPN GameDay in town to cover it all?
The Crisler Center won’t be lacking for energy on Saturday night.
That’s when Michigan coach John Beilein and his team welcome No. 3 Ohio State to Ann Arbor in the biggest game of the season to date for the Wolverines. Both teams are desperate for a win. If the Buckeyes prevail, they’ll keep pace with fellow league leader Michigan State, while a Michigan victory would put the Wolverines within a half game of first place in the conference.
But topping Ohio State won’t be an easy task, and the 17th-ranked Wolverines know that first-hand. When the two teams met in Columbus on Jan. 29, the game was close for 25 minutes before the Buckeyes exerted their will and rolled to a 15-point win.
That matchup came during the extended stretch when sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. couldn’t manage to hit a shot (though he did have 15 points against Ohio State).
Hardaway Jr. seemed to break out of his funk in the win over Illinois last weekend, making his first 3-pointer since Feb. 1 and going 2-for-3 from deep. Sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz also had his best game in weeks. Their performances give Michigan (9-4 Big Ten, 19-7 overall) hope that a more cohesive attack could result in a better offensive output against the Buckeyes this time around.
“Our whole team right now is starting to jell together,” said senior guard Zack Novak. “In the past week, this might be the biggest leap I’ve seen (this season), just in terms of guys playing basketball the way we play, especially offensively. It’s good. It’s heading in the right direction.”
A week ago, it appeared Ohio State (10-3, 22-4) might come limping into Ann Arbor. The team narrowly beat Purdue at home before playing one of its worst games of the season last Saturday against visiting Michigan State. The Spartans bullied their way to a 58-48 win, snapping the Buckeyes’ 39-game home winning streak in the process.
In those two subpar performances, Ohio State revealed one of its potential weaknesses, doing a poor job of defending the high ball screen. Michigan runs the screen regularly with freshman point guard Trey Burke, and if the Wolverines can exploit it on Saturday, their chances of winning will go up dramatically.
Burke had a decent game the last time the teams squared off, going 5-for-11 from the field, but he struggled — as did his teammates — with Ohio State’s length. The Buckeye trio of 6-foot-9 Jared Sullinger, 6-foot-7 DeShaun Thomas and 6-foot-6 William Buford consistently disrupted Burke’s penetration the last time around.
Ohio State still has that length, and its solid win at Minnesota on Tuesday indicates the team is back in form. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten and are tied for 14th in the country, allowing just 0.93 points per possession. Sophomore point guard Aaron Craft — who’ll be matched up with Burke much of Saturday night — is another big reason why.
“He is a tremendous part of their success,” Beilein said. “He plays like a senior that prioritizes winning, prioritizes defense and prioritizes making the next pass. … (Novak and senior guard Stu Douglass) feel the game before the opponent does, and Craft is a specialist at that.”
On the other side of the ball, the Wolverines have held their last two opponents to 39-percent shooting. But rebounding remains a problem, and Ohio State abused Michigan in that area last time, especially on the offensive glass.
Beilein, too, still hasn’t figured out a way to fully contain Sullinger, who’s a favorite to be named first team All-Big Ten at the end of the season.
But the Michigan coach has had plenty of time to devise a defensive plan to help stymie the Buckeyes. The Wolverines have been off a full six days, resting and preparing for Ohio State — their longest such period since winter break in December.
Beilein said he planned to treat the first few days like training camp, focusing on his team only, before beginning to prep for the Buckeyes later in the week. In a bit of a surprise, the usually reserved Beilein also admitted that he’d be addressing the fact that a Big Ten championship is within reach for Michigan. It’d be the team’s first conference title since 1986.
“(The team) knows the standings, so you just do the math and see right away, if you win, we have a great opportunity here against a great team.”
Michigan has done much this season to confirm its standing as a program to be reckoned with again. In primetime on Saturday, the Wolverines have an opportunity to prove it to the nation.