Ohio State enters its showdown with Michigan Tuesday after losing another disappointing Big Ten matchup with Indiana on Saturday.
It's been a Jekyll and Hyde story for Ohio State (13-4, 2-2) in Big Ten play this season. In the Buckeyes' 74-72 overtime victory against Minnesota Jan. 6, they played with energy and poise throughout the game, even when Minnesota stormed back late to tie the game.
On the road against Indiana, however, the Buckeyes came out flat and had to make a valiant comeback effort that fell short in the end.
"You're constantly searching for different ways to push buttons," Ohio State coach Matta said Monday about his team's effort against Indiana.
Matta said a lot of Ohio State's struggles offensively against Indiana were not due to lack of opportunities. He said the Buckeyes had a lot of open looks, but just couldn't convert shots they would normally connect on.
No one is more indicative of that than freshman guard D'Angelo Russell, who burst out the gate with a 25-point first half against Minnesta early in the week, but fell back to earth at Assembly Hall with 13 points on just 3-of-15 shooting from the field.
Russell's roller coaster season continues and Matta said the team's going to have to deal with the fact that the Louisville, Ky., native is young and will have his struggles.
"I think that there are going to be some ups and downs for him," Matta said. "There's nobody that cares more than he does in terms of his play. We've got to get him being consistent, trusting what we're doing, because he's shown that he can really score throughout the offense.
"We definitely need him more consistent. Not great, but more consistent"
Matta alluded to the fact that redshirt-freshman Kam Williams might see some more minutes against Michigan to help give the team some much needed scoring off the bench and infuse some energy into the team's spirit.
Michigan (10-6, 3-1) comes into Columbus on a two-game winning streak against Big Ten competition. The Wolverines have played much better since conference play kicked off, particularly on the offensive end.
In Michigan's 62-57 victory against Minnesota on Saturday, four Wolverines scored in double figures.
Three Wolverines average double figures for Michigan this season. Pickerington, Ohio, native Caris LeVert leads Michigan in scoring with 14.8 points per game and stands as the Wolverines' top NBA prospect. The 6-foot-7 guard's long arms and athleticism can cause problems for the Buckeyes on the perimeter and on the defensive end.
Sharpshooter Zak Irvin is second on the team in scoring with 14.6 points per game. Irvin, LeVert, and third-leading scoring Derrick Walton, Jr. all shoot 35 percent or above from beyond the three-point line and their ability to stretch the floor might force Matta to play more of the zone defense he's shied away from recently.
The Buckeyes have to come out with energy and poise to defeat Michigan. The crowd may be juiced up after a football championship game Monday night and the team could feed off that energy. But either way, Ohio State's effort is what is going to make or break its season.
Numbers to Know:
In the Thad Matta era at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have defeated their rivals 9-of-10 times when the game was played in Columbus. Matta has essentially owned the Wolverines and he'll look to continue the trend in 2015.
Ohio State is third in the Big Ten in assists at 17.3 per game. Ohio State's backcourt has to continue to find its big men for easy scores so they don't have to settle for jump shots late in the shot clock.
Michigan is last in the Big Ten in rebounding offense at 31.8 rebounds per game, which might prompt Matta to use the zone more because they won't have to worry about giving up offensive rebounds against a smaller Michigan front line.
Cast of Characters:
Thompson took matters into his own hands late against Indiana with three and-one opportunities that pulled Ohio State back into the game. He has to continue his aggression on the offensive end to help a Buckeye offense that sometimes can go cold against good competition.
The redshirt-freshman averages 8.2 points per game in just 16.1 minutes per game. If he can get find his way on the floor, he can give the Buckeyes a much needed boost in scoring.
LeVert leads Michigan in scoring, but his biggest ability might be on the defensive end. He's used his length to average 1.9 steals per game on the season. Look for him to get into the passing lanes Tuesday.
Irvin's ability to shoot the ball from deep will stretch Ohio State's defense and open up driving lanes. The Buckeyes can't afford to let the sophomore get hot from behind the arc.