For about the past month, anybody who has watched Ohio State comes away asking the same question: Exactly how good is this team?
It’s a group without a true superstar – though E.J. Liddell is getting nearer by the game – originally picked to finish in the middle of the Big Ten before the season began that has bought into head coach Chris Holtmann’s day-by-day approach, consistently improved throughout the season and has a roster of players who understand how to thrive in their respective roles. Over the past month and a half, the Buckeyes have ridden a 10-1 stretch – with the sole blemish being a two-point loss to Purdue – to a top-five ranking while beating top-flight Big Ten contenders in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin along the way.
The simple response to the question of this group’s ceiling has been simple: Nobody knows quite yet. This team just seems to be getting better by each passing week while picking up quality win after quality win.
|Michigan (15-1, 10-1)||Columbus, Ohio (Schottenstein Center)||1 p.m.||CBS|
But on Sunday afternoon, the sport will get its clearest answer yet.
In arguably the biggest game of the college basketball season up to this point, the No. 4 Buckeyes will play host to No. 3 Michigan at the Schottenstein Center in a much-anticipated matchup between two rivals currently projected as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines, at 15-1, sit in first place in the Big Ten standings, and Ohio State’s recent heater has improved its overall record to 18-4.
This will be the first-ever Ohio State-Michigan game played with both teams ranked in the top-five of the Associated Press top-25 poll.
“Play against the best and beat the best,” point guard CJ Walker said. “That's what we want to do.”
And that’s what they’ll have a chance to do at 1 p.m. on CBS.
Michigan, up to this point, has earned a reputation as college basketball’s third-best team behind No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor. In other words, most view head coach Juwan Howard’s group as the best team in Tier 2 of college basketball this season. He’s done that by putting together a well-rounded roster with veterans like Isaiah Livers and Mike Smith combining with underclassmen in Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner, creating an unexpected national title contender.
The Wolverines won their first 11 games of the season, including a 77-54 decimation of the Badgers at home, before losing 75-57 to Minnesota in Minneapolis in mid-January. They followed that defeat up by beating Maryland and Purdue before the athletic department paused all sports in response to positive tests – not among those in the basketball program – for a coronavirus variant.
A three-week break from hoops ended one week ago when Michigan beat Wisconsin on the road by eight before capturing a 71-64 victory against Rutgers on Thursday. Holtmann said he hasn’t seen a “tremendous drop-off” in the Wolverines’ play since returning to the court.
“They'll be the same, I'm sure,” Holtmann said. “They appear to honestly not have skipped a beat from how good they were playing before.”
Here’s something important to note, though: Michigan hasn’t played a team the level of Ohio State yet.
Its most impressive wins have come against No. 21 Wisconsin, No. 24 Purdue and No. 25 Rutgers. It hasn’t yet faced any of the other top-three teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa), and its top non-conference victory came at home against Toledo, a MAC team that has impressed with an 18-6 record but has lost to Ball State, Bowling Green, Bradley and Akron. Using adjusted efficiency, the best offense the Wolverines have defended has been Toledo (15th nationally) and Penn State (23rd nationally), and with all due respect to the Rockets and Nittany Lions, they don’t come close to the threat posed by the Buckeyes (3rd nationally).
Sunday afternoon, both Ohio State and Michigan will try to prove themselves as the class of the Big Ten.
Three Things To Watch
Most Complete Opponent Yet
The single thing that stands out most about Michigan is also pretty darn obvious. Man, oh man, this Wolverines team is well-rounded.
Ohio State relies heavily on one end of the court, with its offense ranking third in adjusted efficiency and defense coming in at 62nd. Michigan, conversely, has both the seventh-best offense and seventh-best defensive, per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency. Its effective field-goal percentage of 56.6 ranks 10th in the country, and opponents have managed an effective field-goal percentage of 43.1 percent, the second-lowest mark nationally.
This is a team with a 7-foot-2 freshman center in Dickinson – its leading scorer (14.6) and rebounder (7.8) – who has controlled the paint on both ends, length and size on the wing with double-figures scorers in Wagner (12.6 points, 6.8 rebounds) and Livers (14.5 points, 6.1 rebounds), veteran guards in Smith, Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown and backups like Austin Davis and Brandon Johns to round out Howard’s regular rotation of eight guys who average at least 10 minutes per game.
“They've got a ton of weapons,” Holtmann said.
Illinois comes close, but no team Ohio State has faced up to this point poses quite the challenge Michigan will on both ends of the court.
How Does Ohio State Stop The Man In the Middle?
Three of Ohio State’s four losses had a central theme: A big man thriving in the post. Minnesota’s Liam Robbins did it once, and Purdue’s Trevion Williams got the better of the Buckeyes twice.
Dickinson, along with the weapons surrounding him, will test Ohio State’s undersized yet productive frontcourt in a similar fashion.
“Hunter has really provided them, he's got great size,” Holtmann said. “He's 7-2 and he's got really good length.”
The Wolverines rank as the country’s No. 1 post-up team by points per possession, per Synergy, largely due to Dickinson’s efficiency near the basket. To defend him, Ohio State will again look to its forward trio of Kyle Young (6-foot-8, 225 pounds), E.J. Liddell (6-foot-7, 240 pounds) and Zed Key (6-foot-8, 245 pounds), but it’ll likely have to help them out with some double teams. Making Michigan especially dangerous here is the presence of high-level 3-point shooters in Smith (48.6 percent), Livers (43.5 percent), Brown (38.6 percent) and Wagner (36.5 percent) who make it hard to sell out on stopping one thing in particular.
On the other end, Dickinson has proven an effective rim protector, using his 7-foot-2, 255-pound frame and long arms to his advantage. He’s averaging 1.6 blocks per game with the third-highest block rate in Big Ten play (6.1 percent).
If there’s one guy on Michigan’s roster to key on, it’s Dickinson. His rare size and length have made him a difficult matchup as a freshman, and it’ll be Ohio State which gets the next shot at him.
A Lot Riding On Ohio State’s Offense Finding Its Groove
The combination of Dickinson’s size in the middle, athleticism and versatility from bigger-than-usual wings and veteran guards make Michigan’s defense among the nation’s toughest to penetrate.
“This is an elite defensive team, as well,” Holtmann said. “They are phenomenal, just phenomenal on that end. They're big, they're long, they're physical.”
Yet, it’s hard to imagine Ohio State winning unless, one way or another, it has another standout offensive performance.
This is a team that has won due to its offense, and it’s constructed to be one that continues to rely most heavily on that aspect of its game rather than the lowest-rated defense of Holtmann’s Ohio State tenure. Four times this season, it has given up at least 80 points, and it has won each of those games due to an explosive offense. In this team's four losses of the season, it has scored between 60 and 70 points.
The Buckeyes will run a lot of their offense through Liddell, the ever-improving and high-scoring forward who has dropped at least 20 points in five of the past nine games while shooting 12-for-26 from 3 during that stretch. He’s looked like a first-team All-Big Ten guy of late, and he’ll have to continue his string of standout performances on Sunday. Duane Washington Jr., a Michigan native coming off a 21-point game, will also be relied upon for a scoring punch in the backcourt.
As has been the case all season, Ohio State will look to a number of others to step up alongside its top-two scorers. With Justin Ahrens, CJ Walker, Justice Sueing, Kyle Young, Seth Towns and Zed Key in tow, Holtmann will have no shortage of options.
Prediction: Ohio State 85, Michigan 82