One of the biggest games of the college basketball season takes place today at Value City Arena on Sunday, when the fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes host the third-ranked Michigan Wolverines. Currently, Michigan sits atop the Big Ten standings, but a Buckeye win would vault Ohio State to the top of the league with just two weeks left in the regular season.
Before turning their attention to Michigan, Ohio State had to navigate a trip to Penn State on Thursday night. The Nittany Lions threw everything they had at the Buckeyes, but it wasn’t enough to keep Ohio State from sweeping the regular season series. The 92-82 victory was the Buckeyes’ seventh-straight win this year.
After heading into the halftime break with a 47-43 lead, Ohio State came out of the locker room sluggish early in the second half. Penn State was able to open up a 59-51 lead after a Seth Lundy three-pointer with 14:34 left in the game. Not long after, now trailing 61-54, Ohio State would go on a 15-0 run that was capped off by a three-pointer from Eugene Brown III with just under 10 minutes to go.
The Buckeyes wouldn’t trail again in the game, as Penn State couldn’t cut the deficit to less than four points the rest of the way. E.J. Liddell scored a team-high 23 points despite dealing with foul trouble. Duane Washington Jr. continued his hot play after a three-game slump, adding 21 points in the victory effort. It was the first time that Washington has reached the 20-point mark since he scored 21 points in the loss to Purdue a month ago.
While he didn’t score quite as much as Liddell and Washington did on Thursday night, Ohio State’s most important player in the victory over Penn State might have been CJ Walker. The senior guard scored 13 points and dished out seven assists off the bench. Walker had began the season as a starter for Ohio State, but has excelled coming off the bench for the Buckeyes after returning from a hand injury. The transfer from Florida State has now scored at least 10 points in four of the last five games.
Even though Ohio State is getting outstanding production from Liddell and Washington, they are going to need more from Justice Sueing than they have gotten recently. While Sueing did have a double-double last weekend against Indiana, that performance was sandwiched between games against Maryland and Penn State where the junior was almost invisible on the court.
The good news for Ohio State is with their depth when some players are off their game, others find a way to step up. That certainly was the case against Penn State when Musa Jallow scored a season-high nine points off the bench. Thursday’s output marked the first time since Dec. 26th that Jallow had scored more than two points in a game. The extra output from Jallow was welcomed, since Zed Key picked up three fouls in just over four minutes on the floor.
A win today would give Ohio State their 100th win all-time against Michigan, as the Buckeyes currently hold a 99-78 edge in the series with the Wolverines. Ohio State is 57-27 against Michigan in Columbus, and 14-2 against the Wolverines at Value City Arena. The Buckeyes swept Michigan last season, winning 61-58 in Ann Arbor in early February, and securing the regular season sweep almost a month later, topping the Wolverines 77-63 in Columbus on March 1st.
Since Ohio State and Michigan weren’t able to meet on the gridiron, this year’s battle on the hardwood between the rivals has taken on even more importance. Head coach Chris Holtmann has embraced the importance of the rivalry, announcing that players would receive gold jerseys when they sweep Michigan. Since this year the teams only play once in the regular season, Ohio State players could earn a gold jersey for the second year in a row, barring any meetings in the Big Ten Tournament or NCAA Tournament where the Buckeyes would fail to beat the Wolverines.
After John Beilein resurrected the Michigan program, leading the Wolverines to the Sweet Sixteen five times since the 2012-13 season, as well as two championship game appearances, Juwan Howard took over as head coach following Beilein’s move to the NBA at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. Howard went 19-12 in his first season in Ann Arbor, but it’s evident the former Fab Five member has his alma mater on the right track. Not only do the the Wolverines enter today’s game at 15-1, Michigan has one of the best recruiting classes in the country coming in. There’s no question the Buckeyes and Wolverines will be battling for the top spot in the Big Ten for years to come.
Like Ohio State, Michigan also was on the court on Thursday. The Wolverines were playing in their second game after spending three weeks on the sidelines due to COVID-19 protocols. Michigan used a second half comeback to beat Wisconsin 67-59 last Sunday, and on Thursday night defeated Rutgers 71-64 in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines didn’t have to work nearly as hard as Ohio State did on Thursday night. After Michigan and Rutgers were tied at 13 with 11:31 left in the first half, the Wolverines would take control, opening up a 37-28 lead at halftime. The second half was more of the same, as Michigan would lead for most of the period by double digits before Rutgers was able to make the score look a little more respectable in garbage time.
Franz Wagner scored a team-high 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Mike Smith added 12 points, and Hunter Dickinson recorded 10 points and eight rebounds to round out the double-digit scorers for the Wolverines. Michigan was dominant on the glass against the Scarlet Knights, out-rebounding Rutgers 40-27.
One of the biggest stories in the Big Ten this year has been the play of Dickinson, who is almost surely going to earn Freshman of the Year honors in the conference. Dickinson is averaging 14.6 per game and 7.8 rebounds per game, both of which are high marks this year for Michigan. Dickinson has recorded four double-doubles this season, with the most recent coming in last Sunday’s comeback win over Wisconsin.
Sitting just behind Dickinson is Isaiah Livers, who is averaging 14.5 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game. While Dickinson is on a freshman, Livers compliments the big man with his senior leadership. Ohio State is hoping to be able to lockdown Livers much like they did in the only game between the teams that he was available for last year, when he shot just 2-of-11 from the field in the loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus. Livers is coming off a seven-point performance against Rutgers, which marked just the third time this year in which he failed to reach double figures in scoring.
As if slowing down Dickinson and Livers wasn’t tough enough, Ohio State will also have to keep tabs on Franz Wagner, the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moritz Wagner. The sophomore guard is averaging 12.6 points per game after opening up his Michigan career by averaging 11.6 points per game last year. Wagner was a handful for the Buckeyes last season, grabbing 14 rebounds in the first meeting, and scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in Michigan’s loss in Columbus. The double-double against the Buckeyes was the first of Wagner’s college career.
Rounding out the Wolverines who will see some hefty minutes today are a trio of guards. Mike Smith is currently leading the Big Ten with 5.3 assists per game, and is 22 assists away from 500 dimes in his career. Eli Brooks is averaging 8.5 points per game this year, and the senior is closing in on 100 wins during his time at Michigan. Chaundee Brown Jr. spent the first three years of his career at Wake Forest before transferring to Michigan, where he is averaging 8.1 points per game off the bench for the Wolverines.
This game has the feeling of being an instant classic. Not only are these rivals battling for a leg-up in the Big Ten title race, both schools are also angling for a No. 1 seed ahead of next month’s NCAA Tournament. Ohio State will be hoping they can secure their third-straight win over That Team Up North.
It’s not going to be easy for the Buckeyes to earn the victory, though. E.J. Liddell, Kyle Young, and Zed Key are going to have their hands full trying to slow down Dickinson. But it’s not like Ohio State hasn’t had to try and slow down talented bigs this year, as they have already matched up with Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Iowa’s Luka Garza. What Ohio State is going to need to do is something they weren’t able to do on Thursday night, and that’s stay out of foul trouble. While the Buckeyes were able to get away with it against Penn State, the same issue won’t be as easy to hide against the Wolverines.
Ohio State also can’t try and pack the lane to slow down Dickinson, because Michigan will be able to hurt them with Livers, Wagner, and others. CJ Walker has done a great job at being a pest on defense all year, and the Buckeyes will need even more of that on Sunday. Even though Walker comes off the bench, the senior has been quite a spark for the team since returning from injury. It also doesn’t hurt that Walker is so good with the basketball in his hands, and his nearly automatic free throw shooting is crucial in close games.
This game feels like it is destined to come down to the wire. These two teams are pretty evenly matched, so it’s hard to see either team running away with the result. Ohio State feels like they have been a little more battle tested this year than Michigan. The Wolverines were able to survive a trip to Wisconsin last weekend after a long layoff, but they are going to have even more thrown at them by the Buckeyes today.
Ohio State has been showing improvement with each game, and they are just playing so well right now that’s it’s hard to see the Buckeyes falling here. Duane Washington Jr. has snapped the slump he was mired in a few weeks ago, while E.J. Liddell is getting better with each game. Add in the talented depth the Buckeyes have and they should be able to make it eight wins in a row, but it certainly won’t be an easy result for Chris Holtmann’s team.
ESPN BPI: Ohio State 54.8%
Time: 1 PM ET