The No. 23 Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team is still riding high, having won two-straight in conference play — starting with a home win over then-No. 7 Maryland. Now, after a road win against Nebraska to complete the season sweep over the Huskers, the Buckeyes return home to face rival Michigan.
The 19th-ranked Wolverines, meanwhile, come to town after falling to Wisconsin in Ann Arbor 81-74 — their first loss in their last six games.
Both Ohio State and Michigan seem to be holding snug spots in the projected NCAA Tournament seeding. In fact, according to some analysts, it would seem that the Big Ten holds all the No. 6 seeds between Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. Along with this quartet, Indiana, Illinois and Rutgers are all in the mix, while Penn State and Michigan State look to have even higher seeds. Maryland, a projected two-seed, holds the highest position in the Big Ten. Yes, that means 10 of 14 Big Ten teams look to be making the tournament.
Tonight’s matchup is crucial beyond the two teams’ rivalry. Ohio State and Michigan are tied for seventh in the Big Ten standings, each with a 9-8 in-conference record. While Ohio State currently holds the edge, having defeated Michigan on the road once already and owning a one-game advantage over the Wolverines in its overall record, the Buckeyes need a win tonight to take the sole No. 7 spot in a highly-competitive Big Ten.
But for now, Ohio State is looking to complete a regular season sweep of the Wolverines in their 4 p.m. matchup at Value City Arena.
For the first time since December, the Buckeyes are above .500 in conference play. Now, sitting with a 9-8 in-conference record and 19-9 overall record, Ohio State is looking to get to 20 wins for the third-straight season. The Buckeyes have a shot to do so this afternoon against Michigan in the pair’s second matchup of the season.
When Ohio State and Michigan last squared off Feb. 4, the game ended in controversy. Though the Buckeyes ultimately emerged with a 61-58 win, Michigan fans would claim the flukey, albeit correctly-called, technical foul against junior Kyle Young, which resulted in the junior’s jersey being torn, robbed the Wolverines of victory. In response, Ohio State fans would likely just say “the spot was good.”
The rest of the game was something of a grinder. The Buckeyes shot 42% from the field, while holding Michigan to 33.3% shooting. That shooting was balanced, however, by Michigan’s 42-31 rebounding advantage.
In that last matchup, junior forward Kaleb Wesson led the way for the Buckeyes with 23 points and 12 rebounds on the night. Those 23 points, coincidentally, were the most scored by Wesson since his 28 against Penn State Dec. 7. Sophomore guard Duane Washington Jr. had 17 of his own off the bench, connecting on 7-of-14 from the field. Young, despite getting his jersey torn, added a dozen points, including his two free throws with 33 seconds left to put the Buckeyes up for good.
For Michigan, senior guard Zavier Simpson, who happens to be a native of Lima, Ohio, led the Wolverines in scoring with 15 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Senior forward Austin Davis added 11.
On a positive note, in that road matchup, the Buckeyes committed a mere eight turnovers to Michigan’s 12.
Ohio State hasn’t looked back since that win over Michigan, taking four of the last six games. Most recently, after earning a marquee Big Ten win over Maryland, the Buckeyes brought home a 75-54 victory over Nebraska in Lincoln.
In that matchup, the Buckeyes got out to an early lead and never looked back. Despite being without Young, who missed Thursday’s matchup against the Huskers after suffering an ankle injury against Maryland last Sunday, Ohio State didn’t struggle to find a quick rhythm on offense. Per the usual, Kaleb Wesson led the Buckeyes in scoring with 16 points and 18 rebounds on the night for his 11th double-double of the season. By the way, those 18 rebounds are the most by any Buckeye in a single game this season.
Ohio State shot 40% from the field while holding Nebraska to 35.6% shooting. However, the Buckeyes’ usual sharp-shooting from range was off Thursday, as the squad connected on just 6-of-25 attempts from beyond the arc. In all, the Buckeyes outrebounded the Huskers 48-33, and recorded nine turnovers to Nebraska’s 11.
Thursday, the Buckeyes locked down their formidable scoring defense. On the season, the Buckeyes still boast one of the top scoring defenses in the conferences, allowing just 62.3 points per game on 39.1% shooting.
Despite their struggles against the Huskers, the Buckeyes have also emerged with the top three-point shooting percentage in the Big Ten, connecting on 37.3% of shots from beyond the arc. That effort is led by three players who are averaging above 40% shooting from range, including senior forward Andre Wesson, sophomore forward Justin Ahrens and the younger Wesson. From a purely volume perspective, however, the crown goes to Washington, whose 38.2% shooting from range is still impressive.
With the win on Thursday night, as previously mentioned, the Buckeyes find themselves tied with Michigan for the No. 7 spot in the Big Ten rankings. While an NCAA Tournament spot is, for all intents and purposes, now all-but assured, favorable seeding in the Big Ten Tournament will be crucial to give the Buckeyes a chance to go deep in a brutally tough conference.
Michigan, meanwhile, just got knocked down, but the Wolverines will be looking to get back up again this afternoon against the Buckeyes. After winning five-straight games (after falling to Ohio State Feb. 4), Michigan most recently fell to Wisconsin 81-74 in Ann Arbor.
Against the Badgers, despite shooting nearly 52% from the field, the Wolverines couldn’t contain Wisconsin’s 54% shooting. Simpson had 32 points on the night (yes, 32, all by himself) on 14-of-22 shooting. Freshman guard Franz Wagner, the little brother of former Michigan standout Mortitz Wagner, added 17. Of course, the Wolverines were without junior guard Eli Brooks, who received a broken nose in Michigan’s matchup against Purdue last weekend. Brooks had been averaging 11 points per game before his injury.
On the season, Michigan boasts the best field goal percentage in the Big Ten at 46.2%. The aforementioned Simpson leads the Wolverines in scoring with 13 points per game.
On the sideline, Michigan basketball is led by former Michigan great Juwan Howard of Fab Five fame. Howard, the fifth-overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, returns to his alma mater in his first head coaching role after spending several seasons as an assistant with the Miami Heat.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 69.4%
In order to win, Ohio State has to follow the formula that’s proven successful for the team all season: When the Buckeyes are balanced, they are successful. Outside shooting, led by Washington, has to be on.
Once again, the Buckeyes will not be operating at full strength, as Young and freshman guard DJ Carton remain out. However, in the second half of conference play, Ohio State has continued to demonstrate its “next man up” mentality, as players like freshman forward EJ Liddell have stepped up to fill the gaps.
As mentioned, Ohio State really doesn’t need this afternoon’s win for the NCAA Tournament — it needs it for the Big Ten Tournament. Plus, it’s never a bad thing to sweep a rival, both on the hardcourt and on the football field.