For good reason, Sunday afternoon’s Ohio State-Michigan matchup has gotten billed as arguably the best game in college basketball until March Madness arrives.
It’s a battle of top-four teams, both of whom are currently projected as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament with just a few weeks left before the postseason begins. It’s the only time these rival schools match up in the regular season. It’s a clash of top-three teams in the deepest conference in college basketball. It’s an opportunity for each to cement itself as a national championship contender while securing its best win of the season up to this point. It’s a chance for Chris Holtmann to maintain a spotless record versus Juwan Howard, and it’s an opportunity for Howard to beat the Buckeyes for the first time as a coach.
In short, it’s college basketball perfection. Yet this shouldn't be a one-off.
Nobody can ever take anything for granted when it comes to college hoops. Trajectories of programs change all the time. But if things at both programs keep trending the way they have been going, this won’t be the only time Holtmann’s Ohio State and Howard’s Michigan meet up in a high-stakes matchup.
“Certainly, you could look at this and say that appears to be the case,” Holtman said on Friday. “It's our job as coaches to make sure that we're working every day to provide meaningful games for our players, for our fans, for everybody in February and March.”
So far, Holtmann – in his fourth year at Ohio State – has done that every season.
His 2017-18 Buckeyes shocked those both in and outside of Columbus, going 25-9 and 15-3 within the conference despite an expectation of ending up in the Big Ten's basement. They took an anticipated step back the following season when Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate left, exposing some of the holes throughout the rest of the roster. Still, spurred by a 12-1 start, Ohio State managed to go 20-15 and end with an upset of Iowa State in the NCAA tournament as Holtmann worked to reload. It took a step forward in the head coach’s third season, ending the year 21-10 with nine victories in the last 12 games before the COVID-19 pandemic prevented what Holtmann felt was a team that could thrive in the postseason from getting the opportunity.
Then came the 2020-21 season.
The Buckeyes were supposed to be a middle-tier Big Ten team. A low-end top-25 team nationally. Somewhere between solid and good, but not elite.
Instead, they’ve turned themselves into the nation’s fourth-ranked team in late February due to a remarkable – and ongoing – early-January-to-late-February stretch of 10 wins in the last 11 games. Including an unbeaten out-of-conference record and 12-4 in-conference mark that puts it in third place in the Big Ten, it’s 18-4 with four games separating it from the end of the regular season. For his job, Holtmann has turned into a Naismith Coach of the Year candidate who could leave the weekend as the frontrunner if his team can take down Michigan.
No longer can anyone point to him and say, “Sure, he’s winning, but he’s doing it with Thad Matta’s team.”
These are his players. His recruits. His guys.
He beat a list of other schools including home-state Illinois to land E.J. Liddell. He sought Justice Sueing and CJ Walker as transfers and brought them to Ohio State. He believed in three-stars like Duane Washington Jr., Zed Key and Justin Ahrens and helped develop them into impact players. He ensured Seth Towns would end his college hoops career in his native city. He took Kyle Young with him when he accepted the job. He got Meechie Johnson and Musa Jallow to believe in him and his vision for the team enough to reclassify, gained enough trust for Gene Brown to leave Georgia with a single visit, reeled in Jimmy Sotos as a transfer and got Ibrahima Diallo to buy into Columbus being his next home.
Ohio State’s recruiting – especially of late – also offers plenty of reason to believe this program won’t leave the upper echelon of the Big Ten.
In a few months, near-five-star combo guard Malaki Branham and three-star power forward Kalen Etzler will join the Buckeyes. A year later, four-star point guard Bruce Thornton, four-star shooting guard Roddy Gayle and three-star Bowen Hardman will make their way to Columbus.
“I do really like where we're recruiting. I like where we're at with that,” Holtmann said. “I know (Michigan’s) recruiting at an exceptional level as well.”
Few words that could be used to characterize Howard’s recruiting would go overboard.
Michigan will replenish its roster with the nation’s No. 1 2021 recruiting class. It features two five-star prospects – power forwards Caleb Houstan (No. 8 overall) and Moussa Diabate (No. 18 overall) – who headline a group that also includes a pair of top-100 guards and top-150 forwards. Their impending arrivals ensure the Wolverines will remain one of the most talented Big Ten teams, even if it’ll get younger next season. Those six signees will follow a 2020 recruiting class also ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten.
Howard’s tenure, without any debate, has gone as well as Michigan could reasonably have hoped when athletic director Warde Manuel tabbed him as the next head coach without him ever having held that job title before at any level.
Taking over for John Beilein who previously put the Wolverines’ program back on track after a dreadful early-to-mid 2000s, Howard went 19-12 in Year 1 before taking the college basketball world by storm this season. His second year in charge of Michigan has featured his well-rounded team storming out to a 15-1 record and No. 3 ranking nationally.
Howard has managed to combine stragglers from the Beilein era – Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks, Austin Davis and Brandon Johns – with impact transfers in Mike Smith and Chaundee Brown, along with high-level recruits who've turned into key players, such as Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner, to make Michigan a national title contender.
He and his staff’s coaching, development and chops have been on full display, especially over the last year. Howard, much like Holtmann, has his program set up for long-term success.
The Wolverines could see several key pieces, including Livers, Wagner and Smith, leave in the offseason, but they’ll have plenty of incoming talent to retool on the fly. The Buckeyes will lose Walker and possibly Young, who hasn’t hinted one way or another whether he’d stick around for an extra season of eligibility allowed by the NCAA. But their other players, especially Liddell, will have them enter next season projected as a Big Ten title contender.
The Ohio State-Michigan series won’t ever reach what it is in football. That’s not up for debate.
However, if these two programs led by Holtmann and Howard stay at the top of the Big Ten, and thus at the top of college basketball, they might want to get used to playing each other with a lot on the line.
“I think that would be great for both places,” Holtmann said. “That would be great for both universities. That would be great for college basketball. I hope so. I think that's the thing you would feel good about is that this is a February game that means a lot. This is not an early-season game. This is a February game that means a lot. I hope so.”