The Ohio State men’s basketball team needs a win, having dropped their last two games in rough fashion. After falling to a mediocre Penn State team, 83-80, early in December, the Buckeyes went on a four-game win streak, looking ready to go as they headed into the bulk of conference play. But they stumbled a bit last week, losing to Indiana, 71-65, at Assembly Hall and setting a season-low in points, before following it up with a loss to No. 15 Wisconsin at home, 71-60, and again setting a new season-low in points. Now, the Buckeyes (12-4, 2-3) look to turn things around against their rivals, the Michigan Wolverines, in Ann Arbor on Monday. With the Wolverines currently sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten conference, the Buckeyes need to take this opportunity to get their train back on the tracks as they head into the second half of the season.
The last two games for OSU were tough to watch. They marked two of the Buckeyes’ worst defensive performances of the season, and in both cases, OSU had a chance to win the game but struggled to make big defensive stops in the second half that could have brought them to victory. They’ve been plagued by turnovers and sloppy errors, and they’ll need to clean those things up before heading to Ann Arbor.
Still, it wasn’t all bad for the Buckeyes. Against Wisconsin, they looked good early in the game, hitting five of their first seven shots. At the first media timeout, OSU led, 11-8, and they extended that lead to 25-17 by the under-eight media timeout.
Jamison Battle and Bruce Thornton both played a great 20 minutes of basketball, with Battle shooting 5-of-6 for 14 points, including 4-of-5 three-pointers. Thornton, for his part, put up 11 first-half points.
Still, there were a few reasons to be concerned about the Buckeyes’ performance even while they were leading, including the aforementioned issues. Three early turnovers were just the beginning, in a game in which OSU turned the ball over eight times.
And while the Buckeyes did a good job of shutting down Wisconsin’s open lanes on defense in the first half, they could not find a solution for AJ Storr. Storr finished the first half 7-for-11 with 15 points, despite the Buckeyes putting multiple guys on him. It was the first sign of defensive trouble to come, despite the first half being evenly matched otherwise.
At halftime, the Badgers held a narrow two-point lead. But much like in the Indiana game, things fell apart defensively for the Buckeyes in the second half.
The Buckeyes were unable to cut into Wisconsin’s lead for much of the second half, still trailing by just one basket 14 minutes in. The teams went into the under-eight media timeout all tied up at 52-all. This is where things fell apart.
After the timeout, Wisconsin’s Max Klesmit, a junior guard averaging 7.2 points per game, went on an 8-0 run, finishing the game with 18 points in the second half, and scoring nine of the Badgers’ final 14 points.
The Buckeyes were unable to make the defensive stops they needed to close out the game, despite being neck-and-neck for almost all of it.
Similarly, Indiana’s sophomore forward Malik Reneau scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half, nine of which came on an 11-2 run to tie the game at 48-all with 12 minutes to play. A few more baskets helped boost the Hoosiers to a 10-point lead with under four minutes in the game.
The Buckeyes weren’t helped in either situation by sophomore guard Roddy Gayle’s struggles. While Gayle has been a steady leader on the team so far, the Wisconsin game marked the third game in a slump where he’s struggled to make baskets, shooting just 4-for-13 and going 0-4 for on three-pointers. Against the Badgers, his confidence looked noticeably shaken.
They’ll look to get Gayle and their defensive play back on track, as they’ll need to fire on all cylinders to get the win in Ann Arbor.
Michigan (6-10, 1-4 in the Big Ten), for its part, sits at No. 13 in the conference, having lost their last five games. Most recently, they lost on the road to Maryland, 64-57, despite holding a 33-21 lead at halftime. Michigan was without leading scorer, sophomore guard Dug McDaniel, for the game, as the Wolverines announced last week that he would not travel for road games until further notice as he works toward some academic goals.
McDaniel will dress for the game Monday, however, as he is still slated to play in home games. He’s leading the team in points per game, averaging 17.8, and assists, averaging 5.1. Other playmakers for the Wolverines include their pair of senior forwards—Oliver Nkamhoua, who is putting up an average of 16.9 points per game and leads the team in rebounds with an average of 7.6, and Terrence Williams II, who averages 12.6 points per game.
Nkamhoua and Williams II put up 18 and 10 points, respectively, in their loss to the Terrapins.
However, for all of OSU’s defensive struggles in the last two games, they don’t compare to the defensive struggles the Wolverines have faced all season. Against one of the worst defenses in country in this Michigan team, Ohio State will need to seize this opportunity to right their ship.
The Wolverines will have some popular folks in the stands, with Jim Harbaugh and the newly crowned N*tional Ch*mpionship football team rumored to be in attendance to be honored on the court during the game. Their presence could serve as a boost for a team in dire need of a momentum shift.
But the Buckeyes are desperate too (though to a lesser degree). Their next two games, starting Monday in Ann Arbor, and followed by a rematch against Penn State at home, feel like must-wins if they want to keep their season on track and hold onto their NCAA Tournament hopes. Perhaps Harbaugh and Co.’s presence will motivate the Buckeyes too, as handing their rivals an L while the football darlings look on could add to the fun.
While this should be a pretty evenly matched basketball game, Michigan’s defensive challenges far outweigh those of OSU’s. With the exception of the last two games, the Buckeye defense has been pretty solid this season, and the biggest issue defensively in the last two games was closing it out. They’ll need to finish strong against the Wolverines, but Michigan has a much higher hurdle to clear, given that they’re ranked in the bottom third in points allowed and three-point defense this season.
Michigan will have to find a way to keep the ball away from Thornton and Battle if they have any hope of winning this game. This also presents an opportunity for Gayle to return to form, and the Wolverines will need to keep an eye on him as well.
But defensively, the key for the Buckeyes will be Felix Okpara, whose toughness has been a challenge for opponents all season. His performance against the Hoosiers included career-high 15 rebounds and five blocked shots, and if he can continue to put up numbers in that ballpark, it could be enough pressure for the Wolverines to crack, particularly as a team who has been plagued by turnovers all season.
Look to Okpara to try to force some key errors that could keep the game moving in the Buckeyes’ favor.
Still, this should be a competitive matchup between the two teams. The Buckeyes cannot afford to be sloppy, and they will need to hold onto the ball themselves. But barring sloppy errors, the Buckeyes should be able to leave Ann Arbor with a win and leave behind the struggles of last week, but it won’t be handed to them without a fight.
ESPN BPI: Michigan 50.1%
Time: 12 p.m. (noon) ET