Tomorrow evening, with a nationally televised audience tuned in, bitter rivals Michigan and Ohio State will take the floor in a head-to-head showdown with serious Big Ten implications. For the Wolverines, a chance to move into a tie with the Buckeyes for second-place in the conference is at stake. And with ESPN's College GameDay crew in town, and thousands of maize and blue-clad fans lining the Crisler Center, there's little doubt that Ann Arbor is the place to be come Saturday night.
So to prepare for this monstrosity of a basketball game, here are 20 things you should look for during tomorrow's telecast:
1. The swipe attack on Jared Sullinger. Michigan State offered up the ideal blueprint for stifling Ohio State's not-quite-as-rotund interior presence last week, and the Wolverines would be wise to employ a similar defensive strategy. Instead of double teaming immediately, allow Sully an extra second or two to get comfortable, and THEN send a maniacal help defender to swipe the ball out of his hands. Rinse and repeat.
2. A forcible attempt by UM to get to the charity stripe. The Wolverines shot just four freebies all game in OSU's gym earlier this year, and Hardaway Jr., a freakin' perimeter player, was the only guy to attempt one. A little bit of home cooking should afford Michigan a few extra trips this time around, but it's going to take a concerted effort to compete FT battle against a team of Ohio State's caliber.
3. Sam Thompson's IPA-like hops. Not many guys around the country can draw "oohs" and "ahhs" from the crowd for simply going up to snag a rebound. Thompson, though, appears to have some sort of mutant leaping ability. As amazing as it might be to see him jump over an unsuspecting Stu Douglass like he's a fresh-off-the-lot Kia Optima, Thompson hardly sees the floor and probably won't be a serious factor in this game.
4.haphazardly jumping up and down. You KNOW he's going to be there. And unless it's Dreadlock Day at Crisler without our knowledge, the television cameras are going to find him. But please, Denard, for the sake of your knees, STOP JUMPING SO DAMN HIGH. That ACL/MCL combo needs to be fresh for Alabama, thank you very much.
5. Boxing out 'Big Game L'. Lenzelle Smith Jr. absolutely torched Michigan at both ends back in January, and it was his offensive rebounding prowess that made the biggest difference in the end. Michigan's strategy of keeping Smith off the glass amounted to a complicated game of finger pointing after the fact, so this time around you can bet the Wolverines will be a little more prepared.
6. A Beilein 'Ohio' reference. Even though I'm still not really sold on why this is such a demoralizing connotation to begin with, I'm picturing that Beilein and Hoke have some secretive back-room bet going to see who can use this term more often over the next year. And lately Beilein is definitely catching up. With spring football edging closer, Saturday is a prime opportunity to add to this invisible, and largely irrelevant tally.
7. Craft vs. Burke. It's not a stretch to call Burke the best freshman guard in America. It's also not a stretch to call Craft the best perimeter defender in America. These two lay so much on the floor every single possession that this head-to-head battle is guaranteed to be a thing of beauty.
More after the jump...
8. Thad Matta's gum chewing tendencies. Is he straight mashin' it (frustrated), or does he have more of a circular flow going (content)? I always pegged Thad for a Dentyne Ice Artic Chill guy myself, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out he's gnawing on some of that 1994 Gatorade gum that we all used to buy at Sports Authority back in the day.
9. Jay Bilas reinforcing his annual point about autobids. Bilas is a brilliant man with a more realistic mindset about the sport than most, but he refuses to let this one particular issue fade away. And, in a game where talking about mid-major schools has absolutely zero relevance, it's a safe bet that Bilas will find a way to decry them at some point during the telecast anyway.
10. Tim Hardaway Jr.'s body language. The sophomore has looked more composed as of late, sure, but the fact that a soon-to-be professional athlete actually needs to improve his body language is a bit disconcerting. Beilein has harped on Hardaway to stay involved even when his shot isn't falling, so the seed has obviously been planted. Still, an 0-for-9 shooting day with prerequisite bench sulking is the last thing anybody wants to see.
11. Supreme athleticism. In a general sense, Ohio State has it in spades while Michigan does not. The Buckeyes ran away with things back in January for a variety of reasons, but there was a point in the game when it felt like Matta's team was simply overwhelming Michigan with size, strength, speed, and leaping ability at nearly every position on the floor. An abundance of half-court sets can negate this. A track meet, however, will not.
12. Michigan guards attacking the rim. Sullinger is not much of a shot-blocker, and the Buckeyes can't really afford him to be, either. Now that Dallas Lauderdale is graduated and off spending his days judging Klingon beauty pageants, the path to the basket should be wide open for Michigan penetrators. Most elite teams have a rim protector. Ohio State has a lane blocker. Burke and company should set the tone early here and attack.
13. Buford's road woes. Usually a dangerous 15-point per game scorer, William Buford has only shot better than 50% from the field on the road ONCE all season (Valentine's Day vs. Minnesota). We know he's going to get 12-15 looks, but it might be up to the crowd to determine how many of those actually sail through the net. A sea of dozens of Buford's own cut-out heads, a la Maryland's ScheyerFace Movement, could be the answer.
14. The success rate of the 1-3-1 zone. We know that Beilein's defense certainly has its moments. Then again, that doesn't mean it's going to frustrate a well-coached team that knows how to prepare for it. Because Craft is one of the smarter, headier point guards in the league, it's hard to imagine he'll fall victim to some of the traps that this defense forces inexperienced ball-handlers into.
15. Trey Burke's inevitable heat-check from near half-court. It's rare to find a freshman with the type of unwavering confidence that Burke exudes on a game-to-game basis. And when he starts feeling it from the outside, that's when things really start to get crazy. Usually he will slowly begin to creep further and further behind the line for his long-range attempts, and eventually, if he's hot enough, will jack up a shot so ridiculously ill-conceived that it threatens to bring the house down if it ever goes in.
16. An Urban Meyer reference, complete with accompanying graphical overlay. The Buckeyes landed a new football coach recently, and apparently it's sort of a big deal. Whenever this rivalry gets tossed into the media spotlight, you can bet the stuff on the gridiron will end up being an eventual talking point.
17. An overly-reactive crowd. One glance at the schedule tells you everything you need to know: This is the last big game at the Crisler Center this season, and the student section will be going absolutely nuts with revenge on its mind. Dan Shulman will probably make a point about how he's never heard the place so loud, and you, from your couch, will likely agree with him. Expect an awesome environment for 40 minutes.
18. Jordan Morgan's aggressiveness. The sophomore big man has taken a step back in year two, but there's still something about guarding Sullinger 1-on-1 that brings the best out in him. The problem is that Morgan can often be so amped up that his aggressiveness becomes a detriment, and he's no good to anybody sitting on the bench in foul trouble. He went nearly 16 minutes without a foul in the opening half last time, and then proceeded to pick up FOUR fouls over the next 12 minutes of clock time. Something like that cannot happen again if Michigan plans on winning this game.
19. Ohio State sealing off the perimeter. Michigan's ability to spread the floor with perimeter players and kill teams with the three-ball is well-documented. The Buckeyes, though, are one of the better squads in the country at closing out on shooters, and have held opponents to a stingy 45.5% eFG% this season. That number sparkles even more when you consider that OSU is third-best in the country at shutting down offensive rebounds, meaning that Michigan's accuracy from three-point line, as usual, will be essential.
20. Zach Novak drawing an offensive foul. Novak is listed at 6'4", but could be six inches shorter and it probably wouldn't make much of a difference. He's the ideal glue guy, and a kid who has no qualms about doing dirty stuff like willingly getting knocked over by much larger men. Considering the magnitude of this game, not seeing Novak draw at least one offensive foul would be, well, a little weird.