Chris Holtmann and Juwan Howard probably have an inkling of what each other has felt over the past few months.
Both Ohio State (14-7, 4-6 Big Ten) and Michigan (13-8, 4-6 Big Ten) were ranked top-five nationally in December, with the Buckeyes peaking at No. 2 on Dec. 23 and the Wolverines reaching No. 4 on Dec. 2. In January, both teams simultaneously fell apart, falling entirely outside of the top 25. Less than two weeks ago, they were 2-6 and tied for 11th in the Big Ten. Both have seemed to find their footing, winning back-to-back games – though they remain 11th in the conference.
On Tuesday night, they’ll collide in Ann Arbor. The game will tip off at 7 p.m on ESPN2.
“They're just like us,” CJ Walker said on Monday. “They kind of had some adversity hit, but it's the Big Ten. You never know what can happen. It's a really big game. It's going to be really competitive. It's going to be a really good game.”
A win for either team wouldn’t completely negate what happened in their respective past month. Heck, it wouldn’t even allow either to get back to .500.
For the Buckeyes, though, it could mark the most significant road conference victory of the season and the second game in a row won without DJ Carton, who remains out on a leave of absence to focus on his mental health.
Three Important Wolverines
Zavier Simpson (6-foot, 190 pounds)
Ohio State and Michigan will match up in Columbus next month, so this won’t be Simpson’s last chance to go against the Buckeyes. But for the Lima native, it’s his final opportunity to do so in Ann Arbor. Simpson, a widely competitive guard, surely will feed on that. To pull off a win, he’ll need to continue to facilitate efficiently and pick his spots well. Simpson averages 12.6 points, 8.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds in 34 minutes per game.
“I think his greatest attribute is his brain,” Holtmann said. “It's phenomenal. His ability to read and process information like a quarterback and read things so quickly is really phenomenal.”
Jon Teske (7-foot-1, 265 pounds)
Teske managed only five points and four rebounds last year when he faced Kaleb Wesson and the Buckeyes. He’ll get a chance for an improved performance on Tuesday. The big man puts up 13.6 points, shooting 52.9 percent from the field and adding 7.6 rebounds per game.
“Teske's an elite post defender and ball-screen defender. Elite. Elite,” Holtmann said. “So Kaleb's going to need to understand that.”
Isaiah Livers (6-foot-7, 230 pounds)
There’s a good chance Livers doesn’t play on Tuesday night. He has only played 13 games this season and sat out the past two with a lower-body injury. Howard, speaking on Monday, said, “He's improving. Hopefully he'll be back soon.”
If Livers suits up, he’d be a major boon to the Wolverines. He averages 13.1 points, having hit 50 percent of his shots both from the field and the 3-point line this season.
Three Important Buckeyes
At times in his career, Wesson has had difficulties finishing over length. Rarely will he match up with a center quite as tall and long as Teske, who’ll challenge him in that area. Without Carton, it’s especially important that Wesson can make smart decisions on offense and help facilitate Ohio State’s offense.
“He can't get frustrated,” Holtmann said. “He's going to have to understand that, hey, he's going against a guy with great size and physicality. He's going to have to be efficient.”
As long as Carton remains away from the team, Walker might end up featured in this section in every preview – especially given how he played in his first game without the freshman point guard to spell him. The redshirt junior had 14 points, four assists and three steals in 36 minutes, hitting 5-of-9 shots and 2-of-5 3-pointers. Offensively, he seemed to run the show with confidence, leading to efficiency.
It’s hard not to notice what Ahrens has managed to do as an off-the-bench shooter. He dropped 12 points against Northwestern and 11 points versus Indiana, hitting 7-of-10 3-pointers across the two games. Defense remains a question mark, but Holtmann will likely try to get him some playing time on Tuesday due to what he has done lately.
Three Numbers To Know
In its 10 conference games, Michigan has hit just 29.1 percent of its 3-pointers, the third-worst mark in the Big Ten. Hypothetically, that could be beneficial to Ohio State, which ranks dead last in the Big Ten with conference opponents hitting 38.4 percent of their triples.
However, the in-conference opponents that have shot it so well against the Buckeyes don’t have particularly impressive percentages across the entire season. That begs the question: Has Ohio State defended the arc poorly or have other teams’ shooters simply gotten hot at inopportune times?
“I do think some guys have made some timely 3s that maybe have not shot it well against other teams,” Holtmann said. “But sooner or later you've got to look inward and we've got to figure out a way to contest and challenge better than what we're doing right now and to be more in tune to our assignments on that end.”
Most teams that struggle shooting from the outside spend most of their time inside the arc, leading to more drawn fouls. Not Michigan, though.
The Wolverines rank 322nd in the country with a free-throw rate of 26 percent, the second-lowest mark in the conference. Recently, they’ve gotten to the line at a greater clip, though it’s a bit of an anomaly.
Ohio State currently ranks 263rd in the country in adjusted tempo, per Bart Torvik, marking it as the 10th-fastest team in the Big Ten. Without Carton, expect that number to only decrease. The freshman point guard was both the team's most explosive player in transition, and he also got to the line more than anybody else in the backcourt.
“That strength doesn't really lie in other people, so we're going to have to try to do some other things or find other ways to be successful because I don't know that you can force that with certain guys that doesn't play to their strength,” Holtmann said.
- On Thursday, Ohio State couldn’t finish practice because it didn’t have enough healthy players. Carton’s on a leave of absence, Muhammad threw out his shoulder, Young is limited in some practices for precautionary purposes and Andre Wesson had the flu.
- Holtmann on the stamina of Walker: “Stamina and foul trouble are the two major concerns, both with him and with kind of our rotation of ones and twos, which would be Luther and Duane and him. It's a concern. Danny Hummer's going to have to stay ready. We're going to be mindful of practice time, as well, with those guys. Might have to slide somebody down a position, so to speak, whether that's Dre or Justin. We're going to have to look at some things there with that situation.”
- Holtmann on the possibility of players having a one-time immediate eligibility transfer, which the Big Ten reportedly proposed: “I just think the reality is this is where it's headed. It's inevitable.”
- Holtmann said he doesn’t pay attention to any noise beyond what’s happening on the court. When asked about the difference in public-address announcers between Ohio State and Michigan he said, “I like our guy here better though.”
How It Plays Out
Livers getting cleared to play could be enough of a factor to swing the result. At home, his return would be massive.
But as of now, it seems unlikely, so we’re giving the Buckeyes the edge. They legitimately have taken strides in the past couple games on offense – even without Carton – to offer confidence that they’ll manage to put up enough points on Tuesday. Two keys? Minimize unforced turnovers and don’t let Michigan get hot from beyond the arc. Those would spell trouble.
Prediction: Ohio State 70, Michigan 67