Ohio State Feeding Off Jake Diebler’s Passion, Aggression Entering Rivalry Tilt With Michigan

By Andy Anders on March 3, 2024 at 7:00 am
Jake Diebler
Joseph Maiorana – USA TODAY Sports

A team often embodies the spirit of its head coach.

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Gregg Popovich built dynasties with the San Antonio Spurs from his fundamental approach, intensive teaching and team play. Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has won two titles with six NBA Finals appearances by emotionally fueling his players to play emotion-fueled basketball, and though he won his championships with Hall of Famers LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in tow, he’s elevated lesser rosters to the point of making the NBA’s list of the 15 greatest coaches of all-time alongside Popovich in 2022.

Four games into his (interim) head coaching career and nowhere near the accolades of those greats, it’s clear that this Ohio State team is embodying the spirit of Jake Diebler. Passion, aggression and intensity on the basketball court have guided them to three wins few saw coming when Chris Holtmann was fired on Feb. 14, especially when a star player was out of the lineup for two of the games in question.

“I think, collectively, from everybody in our program, we’ve talked about trying to find a way to get that to come out more and play with more passion,” Diebler said after Ohio State’s win over Nebraska on Thursday. “I think, certainly, I need to lead by example with that. Probably led by a little too much of an example sometimes. Tonight, the ref told me I crossed halfcourt once or twice, which I’ve got to clean that up.”

Now heading into a Senior Day matchup with Michigan on Sunday, the Buckeyes look to use that spirit to avenge an earlier loss to their archrival and make it four wins in five games.

“The character of the people in this program, I think that’s been the most important thing,” Diebler said. “A lot of times when you go through adversity – it’s been painful at times, collectively. But we’ve been able to have some really good moments together, some fun moments. And I think these guys, they’re playing with an edge right now and they’re playing with a great deal of confidence and aggressiveness.”

Passion and intensity are one thing, but shooting is what cost Ohio State in Ann Arbor on Jan. 15.

The Buckeyes shot 3-of-25 from three-point range and 37.9% from the field against the Wolverines in a 73-65 loss. Ohio State fell behind by 12 points in the second half, and though it managed to come back and take a lead at one point, Michigan answered with a 13-4 extended run to hand OSU a 12th consecutive road loss.

Pile on top of that the emotions of a rivalry and the Buckeyes are coming into Sunday plenty motivated to deliver a win in Value City Arena.

“We know how important this game is,” Diebler said. “Certainly to celebrate our seniors, certainly because we’re nearing the end of our regular season. But make no mistake, this game is important because it’s the Team Up North. So we own that, we’re leaning into that starting (Friday). We didn’t get the job done at their place earlier this year and we expect to get their very best.”

If one thinks that Ohio State’s season hasn’t gone according to plan, a glance at Michigan’s ledger probably provides some schadenfreude among Buckeye fans.

The Wolverines are 8-21 and last in the Big Ten with a 3-15 record in conference play. They enter Sunday on a six-game losing streak. Star forward Olivier Nkamhoua, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, is out for the season with a wrist injury.

Projected Starting Lineup
No. Player Position Height Weight 2023-24 Stats
0 Dug McDaniel G 5-11 175 16.5 PPG, 4.7 APG
4 Nimari Burnett G 6-4 200 9.7 PPG, 2.4 APG
5 Terrance Williams II F 6-7 225 12.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG
42 Will Tschetter F 6-8 245 7.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG
32 Tarris Reed F 6-10 265 9.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG

Diebler doesn’t expect that to deter Michigan’s players, however, saying that that’s the beautiful thing about rivalries. There are still weapons on the Wolverines’ roster, namely leading scorer Dug McDaniel, who averages 16.5 points and a team-high 4.7 assists per game at point guard. Forward Terrance Williams II pitches in 12.3 points per contest and shot 5-of-5 from distance as part of an 18-point performance last time out against the Buckeyes.

“They got us on Martin Luther King Day and we remember that,” Ohio State forward Jamison Battle said after Thursday’s game. “It left a bad taste in our mouth, and obviously facing the team up north, it’s big. It’s personal. And I think we’re gonna take that to heart and we’ll be right back at it (Friday) and the next two days.”

If Ohio State can maintain its passion and overall level of play, however, it should come out victorious against its most hated enemy.

“Whether it’s been the emotional win against Purdue, the emotional win against Michigan State and how that game ended, we have practiced well consistently,” Diebler said. “That’s the most important thing. Our guys are playing aggressively, I think there’s a great deal of belief right now, which is important. But I expect us to practice really well leading into the next one because the focus has been, ‘One day at a time.’”

The Buckeyes and Wolverines tip off at 4 p.m. on CBS.

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