Hoops Preview: No. 22 Ohio State Buckeyes

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan heads to Columbus tonight for its second road game in a row. Although the Buckeyes struggled in the month of January, they head into this game with a 3-game winning streak.

Date: Tuesday, Feb. 11

Time: 9:00 ET

Place: Columbus, Ohio--Value City Arena

TV: ESPN

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This is one of four one-off conference matchups for the Wolverines this season, the other three being Penn State, Illinois and Northwestern. As such, Michigan won't be facing the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor this season--so, this is it for The Game on the hardwood this season (that is, until a potential Big Ten tournament meeting).

Season So Far

Like Big Ten foe Wisconsin, Ohio State has had a bit of a strange season. The Buckeyes raced off to a 15-0 (2-0) start, but then went on to lose five of their next six games. The Buckeyes reached as high as No. 3 in the polls before they began their losing slide, starting with a dramatic overtime defeat in East Lansing on Jan. 7.

The Buckeyes notched one top 50 RPI win in the nonconference schedule, against No. 48 North Dakota State on Dec. 14. In the conference schedule, Ohio State notched two huge top 50 wins at Iowa and at Wisconsin, both in the month of February.

As for "bad" losses, Ohio State lost to No. 107 Penn State at home, 71-70, on Jan. 29, the nadir of the Buckeyes' season to date.

However, following the aforementioned two road wins, plus a handy 18-point victory over Purdue on Saturday, and the Buckeyes are rolling into Tuesday's matchup with some serious momentum. Ohio State is not a top 5 team this season, but they are certainly good enough to knock off the Wolverines, who haven't looked especially sharp of late.

Additionally, although Michigan pulled off road wins at Wisconsin for the first time since 1999 and at Michigan State for just the second time since 1997, Michigan hasn't exactly had much luck in Columbus either. Even with the Buckeyes being somewhat down by their own standards, a win in VCA will still be a tremendously difficult thing to get.

Personnel

Even though we haven't previewed the Buckeyes yet this season, this is a team with mostly familiar faces. Of course, Aaron Craft still leads the way for the Buckeyes in hustle and grit, the athletic attributes of sportswriters' dreams. Craft only averages 9.3 ppg, but, of course, pure scoring has never been the best part of his game. If the Buckeyes match him up on Nik Stauskas, as teams have done to the Wolverines of late, Michigan's Mississaugan needs to be ready to be hounded all game; simply getting the ball in his hands will be a struggle. But, that's just the first step: once he gets the ball, he has to make something happen with it. Crossovers like D.J. Newbill's don't come to pass too often against Craft.

With that said, Craft is shooting 36 percent from three, significantly better than his junior year mark of 30 percent. He has turned it over some, though: he has a turnover percentage of 23.9 percent during Big Ten play.

The 6-foot-8 junior F LaQuinton Ross leads the way for the Buckeyes on offense, averaging 14.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg (second-best on the team). The Buckeyes aren't a great offensive rebounding team by the numbers (8th in the Big Ten in offensive rebounds per game), but Michigan has had its struggles on the defensive glass; putting a body on Ross will go a long way toward limiting Ohio State's second chance opportunities.

6-foot-4 junior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. always seems to quietly produce for the Buckeyes, even while Craft gets all the national attention. Smith averages 12.0 ppg and shoots 38 percent from beyond the arc. He's also a very good rebounder for a guard (albeit a big guard)--he reels in 4.9 rpg. Smith can hit you with the three if you leave him open in transition, but he can also make things happen at the rim in the open floor. Michigan cannot allow Smith to have a big game if they have any hope of winning.

In addition to Ross, OSU also throws the 6-foot-11 Amir Williams (from Detroit), who does exactly what a guy that size should do: he is a force on the glass. In the loss in East Lansing, Williams reeled in 11 boards, in addition to scoring eight points. Although he oddly didn't grab a single board in OSU's win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, he did average 7.0 rpg during the Illinois-Penn State-Wisconsin stretch.

Like Ross, Michigan needs to put a body on him. Of course, easier said than done.

6-foot-7 junior F Sam Thompson rounds out the starting lineup for the Buckeyes. He pitches in 7.2 ppg and 2.9 rpg, while also shooting a very nice 36 percent from three (on 45 attempts).

Off the bench, G Shannon Scott gives the Buckeyes some offensive juice (7.8 ppg) and distribution (3.6 apg). He's just 27 percent for three, but he does have some quicks to him, which is not great for Michigan when both he and Spike Albrecht on the floor.

Freshman F Marc Loving has been a complete non-factor of late. Loving has a combined three points in his last five games, a stretch during which he's gone 0-for-10 from the field. He did put up 13 and 10 points against Nebraska and Michigan State, respectively, earlier this season. Since then, he's averaged 2.3 ppg. Needless to say, if he scores in the double-digits tonight, things probably aren't looking so good for the Wolverines.

Lastly, former Michigan target Amedeo Della Valle averages 4.8 ppg in just 12.6 minutes per game. Michigan needs to be wary of him near the three-point line; 63 percent of his shots this season have come from downtown, where he shoots 36 percent.

Game Keys

  • Run...but not too much? After an 8-0 Big Ten stretch in which the Michigan offense was a machine in just about every facet, the Wolverines have reverted to the halfcourt struggles of the pre-New Year's Day Wolverines. Michigan sits at 12th in possessions per game during Big Ten play, while the Buckeyes are 6th, despite their reputation as a stereotypical grind-it-out Big Ten team. In any case, it would seem as if Michigan's best chance to score in this one is to find opportunities in transition and the secondary break. Although many of us think of the Michigan offense as an ultra-efficient monster that can do it in the halfcourt or in transition, the losses at Indiana and Iowa have proven otherwise.
  • Bring that Windex. Assuming things go fairly normally, the Buckeyes probably aren't going to score 70+ points, even considering Michigan's defense issues...speaking of said issues, Michigan is not going to win this game if Ross and Williams dominate the boards. Especially with Jordan Morgan on the floor, the Wolverines will be at a size disadvantage. Given that the Wolverines are coming off of a loss in which the Hawkeyes nearly rebounded 50 percent of their misses, this matchup on the defensive boards does not inspire much confidence.
  • The Nik Stauskas Problem. After the Indiana game, some referenced the fact that the inability to get Stauskas the ball/involved was a coaching deficiency. At that point, I dismissed it. Then Nebraska basically removed Stauskas from the game, and I started to wonder (even in spite of the final score of that game). Then, the Iowa game happened. Now, Nik Stauskas's lack of production is not the primary reason for Michigan's defeat in Iowa City, but...at some point, Beilein and Co. need to find a way to work their magic. And, therein lies the problem: maybe there is no magic to be worked? If this is how the rest of Michigan's season is going to go, they'll still likely beat the teams they "should" but will struggle to notch another win against a team of consequence, in the Big Ten or in the Big Dance.

Outlook

With this game and home tilts against the resurgent Badgers and Michigan State coming up, I would be lying if this didn't feel like last year's 1-3 stretch in early February.

With that said, even if Michigan loses tonight, they'll still be in good position to win the league (or at the very least a share of it), as long as they take care of business at home and against "lesser" teams on the road.

Without even looking at Kenpom or anything else, however, my gut tells me that Michigan goes down in a similar fashion to last year's loss in Columbus. The Wolverines will dig themselves a hole, but, since they're not faced with checking Iowa's unfairly dynamic offense, there will be room to launch a frustratingly, grindingly slow comeback.

However, I just don't see Nik Stauskas getting on track in this one, and I have a hard time picturing Michigan's frontcourt keeping Williams and Ross at bay on the boards.

While I would love to be proven wrong, I think Michigan drops its third conference game tonight. Again, it won't be the end of the world vis-a-vis Michigan's conference title hopes, but the pressure to hold serve against the Badgers and Spartans will ratchet up an order of magnitude or two.
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