Both Ohio State and Michigan had successful seasons last year. There were ups and downs, certainly, but neither program needed to hang their heads when the final buzzer sounded.
The Buckeyes were picked to finish in the middle of the Big Ten, but E.J. Liddell and Duane Washington’s simultaneous improvement propelled them towards the top of the conference standings and the AP Poll all season long. Ohio State earned a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and yes, they were upset in historic fashion shortly thereafter. But the work that was done to get them there cannot be overlooked. 20 wins again, several ranked wins, and they kept right in the mix for a Big Ten title before a four-game losing streak towards the end. A disappointing finish to what was by all accounts a very successful season.
The Michigan Wolverines looked like world-beaters from the get-go, combining youth and experience to strategically pick apart the Big Ten early on. They looked like they were coasting towards a Big Ten title with their 11-0 start, but a COVID-outbreak at the university in mid-January really dampened the spirits of the folks up in Ann Arbor. The team was ordered to stop all activity for two weeks — no practice, no games, nothing. How would they respond? Would they be rusty? What they did was win six of their final eight games, clinch the Big Ten title, and earn a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan advanced to the Elite 8, something the Buckeyes have not done in eight seasons. But as a 1-seed, some felt last year’s Michigan team could have — should have — gone further.
The funny thing is, even with their differences and the animosity these fanbases have for each other, the Ohio State and Michigan basketball programs have a few striking similarities as we inch closer and closer to the 2021 season.
Ohio State was led by CJ Walker — a transfer from Florida State — last season at point guard. He is gone now, but provided stability at a position that was a big question mark following Luther Muhammad’s transfer two years ago. Michigan — similarly — employed the services of Columbia-transfer Mike Smith at point guard last season. Smith joined the Michigan program after two-time All-B1G selection Zavier Simpson graduated two seasons ago. Like Walker, Smith has since graduated.
Two basketball teams who want nothing more than to beat the other, who both filled a void at guard by bringing in a transfer, and then lost their stopgap point guards at the conclusion of the 2020-2021 season. How did they fix this issue? Funny you should ask.
Both Ohio State and Michigan reached back into the transfer portal to replenish their backcourts. They both pulled in veteran point guards who happen to be First Team All-Sun Belt selections. Ohio State and Michigan took two guards who have been going at each other’s necks for three seasons already, and plugged them into one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports.
On May 1, the reigning Sun Belt player of the year DeVante Jones announced he would be transferring to the University of Michigan. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound guard averaged 19.3 points per game last season for the Chanticleers, which was second-most in the Sen Belt. He also averaged 7.2 rebounds per game, which was good for eighth in the conference. It should be noted that Jones averaged just over 13 shots per game at Coastal, a number that he likely won’t see this season at Michigan. But the same was said for Smith last season at Michigan, who entered that program as a high-volume scorer coming from Columbia, but quickly adjusted and became more of a distributor who could score if needed.
JUST IN: Your 2020-21 @SunBelt Player of the Year is @CoastalMBB’s DeVante’ Jones.@wmbfnews @3DevanteJ #ChantsUp #SunBeltMBB pic.twitter.com/pOxEalsBju— Gabe McDonald (@GabeMcDonald_) March 11, 2021
Then, on July 9, Cedric Russell — another first team All-Sun Belt guard who led Louisiana-Lafayette in scoring last season at 17.2 points per game — announced he was transferring to Ohio State. Of the five players named as first-team All-Sun Belt, two of them transferred to Big Ten schools. Like Jones, Russell was given the green light quite a bit at Louisiana, as he averaged roughly 14 shot attempts per game. For reference, no Ohio State player averaged 14 shot attempts per game last season, including all-Big Ten selections Liddell and Washington.
It was the Cedric Russell (@CeddypDaChief) show for Ragin' Cajuns hoops Saturday vs. Louisiana Tech.— Seth Lewis (@SethLewisInc) December 14, 2020
The Alexandria native led all scorers with 25 points and 5 rebounds in the victory, and was a key catalyst in the Cajuns 16-point, 2nd half comeback.https://t.co/yhUoSyIjR3 pic.twitter.com/2yjgq4rzjn
While it may not be covered extensively this season because Ohio State and Michigan only play twice (barring a third matchup in the conference/NCAA tournaments), it’s pretty remarkable — and frankly, funny — that two of the top guards from a small conference like the Sun Belt will now continue to face each other in the Big Ten. Russell is an inch taller than Jones, but Jones is about 10 pounds heavier. Jones has proven to be a more efficient scorer than Russell overall, but Russell tends to rely more on the three-ball than Jones — and shoots it much more consistently.
Both Russell and Jones will be playing a ton of minutes for their respective teams, so they’ll be sure to get re-acquainted during Ohio State’s two meetings with the Wolverines on Feb. 12 and March 6. But how have they fared against each other so far? The two electric guards have faced each other three times, with Russell and the Ragin’ Cajuns winning two of the three meetings.
On Feb. 2, 2019, the two faced off in front of a raucous crowd of 1,454 people in Conway, South Carolina. Jones and his Chanticleers laid a major butt-whoopin’ on Louisiana, nearly eclipsing the century mark in a 96-79 win. A then-freshman Jones had 16 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Russell, — a sophomore — had four points on 2-of-6 shooting.
Round two took place a few weeks later on the 28th of that same month, but in the “Cajundome” in Lafayette. Russell/Louisiana came away victorious this time, 83-70. Jones shined again with a team-high 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Russell had 14 points on a very efficient 4-of-6 shooting.
The tiebreaker happened the following season on March 3, 2020, and it was a doozy. Louisiana won 108-101, as defense was extremely optional throughout the 40-minute bout. Jones struggled shooting the ball, scoring 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting, but made up for it in other ways by also grabbing four rebounds and racking up nine assists. Russell was the star, however, scoring a game-high 28 points to go along with 5 assists. That is the type of production Ohio State would love to see from him this season.
The two teams did not play last season, as the Sun Belt adopted a weekends-only slate during the COVID-19 pandemic and the schedule was altered quite a bit. Luckily for these two dynamic guards, they’ll get at least two more meetings this upcoming season.
Have Russell and Jones met? Are they friends, or do they have an opinion of the other? I’m not sure, but I’ll do my best to find out this season. All I know is that it’s cool as hell that two guys who have competed in huge Sun Belt games are now going to do the same thing in the Big Ten — in front of crowds that are roughly ten times as big, on the absolute biggest stage, in the best conference in college basketball.