The Buckeyes (14-6, 7-4) fell to Rutgers 66-64 after holding a 64-56 lead with 3:48 remaining in the game. While an eight-point difference with four minutes left in the game doesn’t rise to the level of a “miraculous comeback” from the Scarlet Knights, this was definitely one that the Buckeyes let slipped through their fingers.
But as is life, the real question that must be answered when things don’t go your way is “How will your respond?” For the Buckeyes, their chance to respond comes on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET against the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
Michigan (13-9, 7-5) is riding higher than they have all season (albeit not a particularly high bar) as they are 2-0 already this week with an absolute stomping of Purdue on Thursday night. The Wolverines defeated the No. 3 Boilermakers 82-58 in what was their best full game performance of the season.
Since we are in mid-February, the postseason picture is starting to become clearer. Illinois and Wisconsin are tied atop the conference standings at 10-3 with Purdue nipping at their heels at 10-4. Michigan State is in fourth place at 8-4 and Ohio State is in fifth place at 7-4. All of those numbers aside, it is hard to truly gauge the standings right now as the Buckeyes have played two fewer conference games than everyone else due to various forms of postponements.
Even though they are not technically out of it, Ohio State’s loss to Rutgers significantly hurts their chances to make a run at a regular season conference title. However, with 10 official conference games left, these standings are nowhere near set in stone.
Finishing the regular season in the top four of the league would also go a long way for the Buckeyes as that would earn them a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament, which would give the Buckeyes a much needed rest as they have had two previously postponed games shoehorned into the last month of the season.
All rivalry emotions aside, Michigan has largely been a disappointment this year. They started the season sixth in the AP Poll and had high expectations after a solid 2020-21. Most people viewed them and Purdue as the top two teams in the Big Ten. However, the pieces have just not fit as well as they were expected too and the players that they lost after last season have proven to be even more valuable than anticipated. Currently, the Wolverines are barely hanging onto the NCAA tournament bubble; although the Purdue win certainly will swing things in their favor to a certain degree.
Ohio State has the sixth most efficient offense in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced analytics; Michigan has the 19th most efficient offense, so Saturday’s game will be a matchup of two teams who are very proficient at scoring the basketball.
Ohio State star E.J. Liddell leads the Buckeyes into this one, averaging 19.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. The third-year forward is having a record breaking season.
EJ Liddell is the only player since 2008 to average the following:— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) February 6, 2022
19.5 points per game
7.5 rebounds per game
2.5 assists per game
2.5 blocks per game
Courtesy of the great @EvanMiya
Similarly, Michigan forward Hunter Dickinson is having a stellar sophomore season, averaging 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Liddell and Dickinson were two of the better players in the conference last season and both entered the NBA Draft, but decided to come back to their respective schools for one more season.
Earlier this week, Michigan shot 12-for-21 from behind the arc against Purdue in what was their best shooting game of the season. They will be tough — and more or less impossible — to beat if they do that again, but on the season they are shooting a far more standard 35% from three-point range, which is sixth in the conference; Ohio State is third at 38% from deep.
Michigan has had times where they have looked like the top 10 team that everyone expected them to be before the season began, but more often than not, they have looked flat and inconsistent. Freshman sensation Caleb Houstan has been good, but not great, and star transfer De’Vante Jones has been inconsistent for the most part.
On their side, Ohio State is still looking to get healthy, as guards Meechie Johnson Jr. and Eugene Brown will both be game-time decisions. The Buckeyes are also still hoping to get forward Justice Sueing on the court again this season; fellow veteran forward Seth Towns has officially been ruled out for the remainder of the campaign.
Dickinson is almost always going to get something approaching 20 and 10, but if you can absorb that while slowing everyone else on the team down, that can be a recipe for success. When teams have limited the scoring from the non-Dickinson Wolverines, it has been tough for Michigan to get wins, as they are average to below average on defense at best.
This will be a telling game for the Buckeyes. When teams suffer tough losses like Ohio State did against Rutgers, they can either fold and string together a painful series of losses that derail their season, or they can come out the next game with an added energy and get a much needed rebound victory.
I think this Ohio State team will be the latter. The Buckeyes have been good about not going on losing streaks and have not had back-to-back Ls this season.
The Buckeyes sweet spot is 70 points on the season; when they score 70 points or more this season, they are 12-1.
Also for Ohio State, they need someone to take some pressure off of Liddell and Malaki Branham. Against Rutgers, the duo had 35 of the Buckeyes’ 64 points, and no one was able to step up down the stretch to get a much needed bucket. Whether it is Justin Ahrens, Zed Key, Cedric Russell or someone — literally anyone — else, OSU needs more variety on offense to open things up for their top-two scorers.
Another factor that will go a long way in determining this game’s winner will be Michigan’s legs. They played a close game against Penn State on Tuesday and an energy-draining win against Purdue on Thursday night. So Saturday’s game will be their third in five days. The Wolverines will need to dig deep in order to run with the Buckeyes who can go 10 deep if necessary.
I think this one will be close throughout with Ohio State pulling away at the end.
ESPN BPI: Michigan 58.2%
Time: 6 p.m. ET