January was certainly not kind to Ohio State hoops this season, but the team is looking to get back on track as the calendar flips to February. The Buckeyes looked like their old selves in their last time out with a win over Indiana, and began the day winners of two in a row. Tuesday’s action featured a big uptick in difficulty, however, as Ohio State hit the road to take on rival Michigan.
The Crisler Center has not been kind to the Buckeyes in recent years. In fact, OSU has not won in Ann Arbor in exactly three years to the date — last defeating the Wolverines on the road on Feb. 4, 2017 in Thad Matta’s final season. In his first two seasons as the head coach of the Buckeyes, Chris Holtmann is 1-2 against Michigan, with losses in both road contests.
This game was of massive importance to the two Big Ten rivals. With both teams sitting at 4-6 in conference play, each program needed to start stringing together some wins. The loser of the contest would take over sole possession of 12th place in the B1G, with little room for error the rest of the way. The biggest question heading into tipoff was which Ohio State are we going to see: the one that dominated top 10 opponents earlier in the year, or the one that went 2-5 last month.
It was good news for Buckeye nation on Tuesday night, as the Ohio State of old showed up in full force, battling for a gritty 61-58 victory over Michigan in one of the more physical basketball games you'll see all year. Kaleb Wesson was phenomenal, leading all scorers with 23 points to go along with 12 rebounds and three assists as he secured his third-straight double-double.
With just 33 seconds remaining, Kyle Young knocked down a pair of technical free throws to give the Bucks a one-point lead. UM elected to intentionally foul CJ Walker, who hit both of his shots at the charity stripe to put Ohio State up three, a lead which they would hold to the end as the Wolverines missed their final shot attempt of the night. Young finished with 12 points and five rebounds, while Walker had five assists.
Just what were the key factors and storylines that led to this outcome in the latest Buckeye hoops action?
Senior center Jon Teske is arguably Michigan’s best player on both sides of the ball. A massive presence at 7-foot-1, Teske’s physically at each end of the floor make him an incredibly tough matchup. As the Wolverines leader in points per game, averaging 13.6 per contest, he possesses the ability to bully you inside and frustrate opposing bigs underneath, while that size and physically locks you down at the defensive end.
Ohio State is a very undersized unit, and so it was up to forward Kaleb Wesson to matchup with Teske. At 6-foot-9, Wesson gives up a decent amount of size to the UM center, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in pure strength. As the Buckeyes leading scorer, averaging 13.9 points per game, it looked as though OSU’s game plan early on was to try and frustrate Teske with Wesson’s ability to score.
Wesson started off hot, knocking down seven of the team’s first nine points. Almost every possession, the Buckeyes looked for some way to feed the ball down inside to their big man, and he was able to back down the usually defensively sound Teske and hit some nice step-back mid-range shots to keep the Ohio State offense afloat in the first period, while also knocking down a trio of threes. Overall, Wesson dropped 15 in the first half on 6-of-9 shooting, all while holding Teske scoreless at the other end.
Turning over a new leaf?
Ohio State’s biggest problem this season, even when it was playing at its highest level, has been turnovers. The Buckeyes have had double-digit turnovers in all but two games this season, turning the ball over 15 or more times in a game on four separate occasions. Especially with how tough it is to play on the road in the Big Ten this season, giving the ball away on numerous possessions — especially the kinds of unforced turnovers OSU has struggled with — is simply not going to get the job done on most nights.
Against Michigan, the Buckeyes were doing a phenomenal job of taking care of the ball early on. In fact, in the first period, Ohio State turned the ball over just three times as a team. They were doing a great job of limiting bad passes and really moving the ball around with very few mistakes. They even did a good job of making the most of the Wolverines’ limited turnovers, scoring eight points off UM’s five first-half giveaways.
Ohio State would finish the game with only eight turnovers compared to 12 by Michigan. The ball security by the Buckeyes was especially impressive this time out given the hostile environment and physical nature of the game. Hopefully the team can continue this trend moving forward.
Beat up on the boards
The past few games Ohio State has been doing a great job cleaning up the glass. In three of their last four contests, the Buckeyes have actually won the rebounding battle despite not possessing a ton of size. That was not the case against Michigan, where OSU was getting hammered on boards at both ends of the floor.
Ohio State was out-rebounded in the first period 21-14. While being beat on the glass in one period by seven rebounds is bad enough, the real story was at the offensive end of things. The Wolverines had hauled in a whopping seven offensive boards in the opening 20 minutes, leading to numerous second-chance opportunities for the home team. Despite shooting just 31 percent as a unit in the first half, Michigan headed into the break down only one point, aided in part by extra offensive possessions provided by their glass-eaters.
UM finished the contest with a 42-30 rebounding advantage. Ohio State really got beat up on the offensive end, as the Bucks allowed 12 offensive boards leading to a whopping 17 second-chance points for the Wolverines. Fortunately, they were able to overcome such a disparity on the glass with stout defense inside, as OSU allowed just 16 points in the paint over the course of the entire game.
Getting the bench involved
Ohio State needed to find some source of offense to help out Kaleb Wesson, and without D.J. Carton the list of options got even shorter. After Wesson finished with 15 of the Buckeyes’ 28 points in the first period, the team looked committed to finding ways to better spread the ball around in the second half, with the majority of that help coming from players off the bench.
While he didn’t have his greatest shooting night overall, Duane Washington Jr. came up huge for Ohio State on multiple occasions as the teams second-leading scorer against the Wolverines. He would finish the game with 17 points including a trio of makes from downtown, while also adding three boards and a pair of assists. E.J. Liddell also played some crucial minutes in a stretch with Wesson on the bench, scoring four points with three rebounds and two big blocks.
Justin Ahrens found himself with additional minutes once again, hitting 1-of-2 from deep as his finished with just three points. Ahrens has hit eight of his last 12 shots from beyond the arc this season.
A classic Big Ten battle
If the ball was a slightly different shape, you could have easily convinced viewers that you were watching an Ohio State-Michigan football game with the amount of physically from both sides. The refs seemed entirely committed to letting them play — at times to a fault — and both teams were absorbing an enormous amount of contact. Even Jay Bilas on the ESPN broadcast was stunned on multiple occasions at the lack of fouls being called on either side.
While the rarity of whistles was certainly questionable for both teams, it provided a classic Big Ten style of play — one that already models itself after the physical play seen in Big Ten football. The Buckeyes and the Wolverines each showed up ready to play 40 minutes of tough, hard-nosed basketball. There was never any signs of letting up on the defensive end, and every single basket was a battle. Guys were getting beat up seemingly every possession, both neither side ever wavered in the ultimate goal of winning the game.
Fortunately for Ohio State, this final result against Michigan was the same on the hardwood as it usually is on the gridiron.