While the Fab Five this isn't, Michigan's John Beilein has his best team ever and a group that could be poised to best Michigan's greatest start in school history. A win over arch rival Ohio State could also mean the nation's number one ranking and the potential dawn of a sea change in the balance of power in Big Ten basketball.
Michigan and Ohio State meet in a game that just a few weeks ago probably looked to be viewed in a much different light. Prior to the Buckeyes temporarily completely derailing against Illinois (an event which has since been contextualized by Illinois doing it at Wisconsin, Minnesota doing it for a half at Indiana, and basically every team of note in the Big Ten finding that winning on the road in the country's premier conference is anything but easy), the conventional thinking was that the Ohio State Buckeyes would be playing host to their arch rival, but an overrated, ripe for the plucking one.
Every team of note in the Big Ten finding that winning on the road in the country's premiere conference is anything but easy
Ohio State's football team is having what one would have to consider as a big recruiting weekend concurrently as well. While those recruits and their families will still be attending this game (and though the weekend's already gone splendidly to point), any notions of Michigan's mortality have been erased by play of the highest order and far too much inconsistency to feel even the least bit confident on the flip side.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that momentum, while only as good as tomorrow's starting five, would seem, at face value, to not be entirely opposed to them. Ohio State bounced back from their debilitating, maladroit face plant on the road in Champaign-Urbana to look far more akin to the best they've appeared all 2012-2013 in a 74-64 win over Purdue.
Ohio State's eFG% advantage against Purdue was .611 to .417. Though the Buckeyes still lost the turnover percentage differential .188 to .077, their expert marksmanship proved to win the day. If OSU comes even close to matching that, they'll be in the game with the Wolverines by default. UM's not an elite defense team, though a good one, checking in as the 44th best in adjusted defensive efficiency in the country. The problem will be keeping up with their scoring prowess.
The Wolverines enter this one with the best adjusted offensive efficiency offense in the country. Even against hapless Nebraska Wednesday in a game that was far closer than it probably should've been, the Wolverines "stumbled" their way to a 15-point victory. It's simply been that kind of year for the Maize and Blue. Besides averaging over 80 points a game, Michigan rides a 16-game winning streak into this one. John Beilein's group has only had one game finish with a five point or closer margin all year; they're simply boat racing teams. When weeks go by and your leading scorer from one game to the next differs and you're beating your opposition soundly in both, you've likely got something very good going.
A counter argument exists that perhaps they just haven't played anyone worth their weight in gold (West Virginia and Arkansas, two of their better matchups going into this season, have greatly underachieved), but Kansas State and NC State are both presently ranked in the Top 25 and Pittsburgh, at 13-4, would've merited consideration prior to an overtime loss to Ohio State's lost season opener opponent, Marquette. None of this matters, however, when the Wolverines step onto the court at Value City Arena and another rivalry game with their most hated antagonist begins in earnest once again.
You've heard it all before about Columbus native son, Michigan star point guard Trey Burke. Thad Matta elected to go with Shannon Scott over Jared Sullinger's AAU teammate, and second guessers could have their day in court if Burke burns the Buckeyes again with another career day. After spurning overtures to declare for the 2012 NBA Draft, Burke's averaged 18.2 points per game to go along with 7.3 assists and 1.3 steals per contest. Burke's had games where his scoring didn't quite live up to the billing, but in each of those contests, another teammate has stepped in and filled in almost seamlessly.
Burke's principle running mate in the backcourt is the mercurial Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway channels an early career Deshaun Thomas in terms of his inconsistency both on the court and in the hearts of the Wolverine faithful, but has proven himself a concern-meriting scoring threat. The junior is averaging a career-high 16.3 points per game and has gone for 25 twice this season. His three-point stroke can still abandon him at times but due to his length and size, he might still elect to try to shoot his way out of any funks Lenzelle Smith Jr's defense could create for him.
If you've yet to see the third guard in Michigan's lineup, 6'6 freshman Nik Stauskas, play then you're in for a rude awakening. If you're not a Michigan partisan, you're effectively guaranteed to hate him. Stauskas is one of those players who does things on the offensive side that make you almost say, "he shouldn't be able to do that." Long range shooting comes naturally for the Ontario, Canada native, who while not the athlete Sam Thompson is (even at his age/experience level), is the far more accomplished overall offensive threat. Even if the Buckeyes inexplicably lock down both Burke and Hardaway concurrently, that's only going to mean and better shots for Stauskas.
But he might not even be Michigan's best starting freshman. Glenn Robinson III, the Little Dog, is a relatively undersized forward at 6'6 210, but plays bigger than his frame would let on. Robinson's already averaging 12 and 6 in his first go with the Wolverines and like Stauskas, has already been honored as a Big Ten freshman of the week. Robinson went off for 20 against Iowa a week ago and certainly won't make it easy for the bigger Deshaun Thomas, who'll likely draw the assignment.
Concluding Michigan's starters is forward Jordan Morgan. Morgan plays the de facto center role for the Wolverines and is built almost a Sully-esque 6'8 250+. He averages only 6.8 points per game and 5.4 rebounds, but has four double-digit rebounding games on the year and always seems to make up for not stuffing the box score with his approach on the glass. He's sort of a homeless man's Draymond Green, but shouldn't present any real matchup issues for Amir Williams or Evan Ravenel. While Ravenel looks suddenly revitalized and Williams has been surprisingly consistently competent in stretches, they still won't be able to let their guards down.
Michigan's last loss was to a team from Ohio. Time to complete the symmetry
First off the bench is a player that might prove problematic, however, in 6'10 frosh Mitch McGary. McGary is the third Wolverine to be honored as the Big Ten's best freshman during a week this year, and does so on the heels of frantic energy and advantageous length, which makes him a daunting matchup at the college level. Defensively he's a bit of a mixed bag, but his energy and hustle level will remind you of Tyler Hansbrough. This also likely means he will be extremely, extremely grating to watch for the duration of his career as a Wolverine. Set your expectations accordingly.
Two additional freshmen, point guard Spike Albrecht and Pickerington product, another lanky guard, 6'5 Caris LeVert, complete Michigan's rotation. Albrecht and LeVert don't average near the minutes the core six do, but they're also not exactly ill-equipped to step up if the moment necessitates it. While the Buckeyes are forced to go eight deep by necessity, unquestionably out of the norm from the rest of the Thad Matta era, Beilein can go to a deeper rotation as he sees fit. If one Wolverine is having an off night, another without fail has stepped up in his tread this season. When the extensive form game for such possible outcomes go from Burke to Hardaway to Robinson to Stauskas, the ultimate zero-sum offensive basketball attack becomes one of the scariest things Ohio State will see on the court all season. And this is just the first of what could be three times.
Color it any way you want it – Michigan and Ohio State renew resentments once again, this time on the hardwood. For all Michigan has on the line, you can effectively throw the records out the window. To the victor go the spoils, though hopefully they won't be hailed.
Ohio State 71 - Michigan 70