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Michigan's Keys to Winning its Biggest Regular Season Game in Over a Decade*

*It probably is. I guess I'm assuming that a shot at Michigan's first Big Ten Title since my parents were in college -- a win tomorrow puts them in great position of attaining (at least a share of) it -- is much more important than any game in previous years with only bubble implications. You could probably make a case for the game in East Lansing as the biggest one in years in terms of the significance to the program, but that's in hindsight. Gameday is here, Michigan's playing for a Big Ten Title, not bubble position, it's a game against a hated, Top 10 rival, and for this weekend, Ann Arbor is the center of the college basketball universe.

A little less than three weeks ago, Michigan headed to Columbus to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes, then ranked number three in the country, in a nationally televised CBS game. It was Trey Burke's first game against his former high school teammate Jared Sullinger, and the fluff from that matchup was predictably plentiful throughout the game. Michigan managed to jump out to an early 5-0 lead, but a few key missed opportunities led to a 7-0 Ohio State run that erased any chances of a hot start. The Wolverines only trailed by three at the half. Ohio State finally had their run, it always seemed like Michigan was just holding them back, and later, the Wolverines were unable to capitalize on a 5 minute scoreless stretch for the Buckeyes. Ohio State ended the game on a 10-3 run to make the final scoreline, 64-49, look much worse than it was. Lenzelle Smith Jr. grabbed eight offensive rebounds and scored seventeen points. Zach Novak was held scoreless. Michigan lost to their hated rival on the road. Thad Matta won his ninth game in eleven tries against a Michigan team coached by John Beilein.

It's kind of hard to forget that game when looking at this one. Michigan definitely had a puncher's chance in an exceedingly tough road environment, but a far more talented team that is uniquely suited to exploit Michigan's weaknesses pulled away with a convincing win. This time, Michigan will be at home, in the newly renovated Crisler Center that has yet to see its Michigan Wolverines lose, instead of Columbus, with a home crowd that will have been hyped up all day by the best pep rally in college sports (brought to you by the fine folks at ESPN). Ohio State is a better team than Michigan. They're vulnerable though. The Wolverines have a good chance to pull off an upset to shake up the Big Ten race, but they'll need to play some of the best basketball that we've seen them play all year.

Ohio State has had a fairly uneventful season after finishing as the tournament's overall number one seed a year ago (they lost in the Sweet Sixteen to a vastly underrated Kentucky squad) -- the Buckeyes destroyed Duke in the Big Ten / ACC Challenge, an injury to Jared Sullinger was the reason for a loss to Thomas Robinson and Kansas, OSU struggled with foul trouble and dropped a close one in Bloomington, they avenged their loss as part of a 8-1 stretch (the only loss was a miracle 43 points from Brandon Paul) and ran roughshod over the conference before dropping a curious home game to Michigan State where the Spartans simply beat the Buckeyes. The numbers love Ohio State: their offense doesn't excel in one particular area -- their offensive rebounding prowess is their best attribute -- but they're solid across the board. Their defense is elite, however. The Buckeyes are the best in the Big Ten at getting defensive rebounds and forcing turnovers and are excellent at keeping teams off of the free throw line and forcing them to miss shots. The Buckeyes have a very shallow rotation; Sullinger is the All-American post player who gets to the line at an epic rate, William Buford is the inconsistent senior scorer who has the most NBA potential on the team, Deshaun Thomas is a breakout sophomore whose offense could not possibly be better than his lackadaisical defense, Aaron Craft is the stingy defender at point guard, and Smith, Evan Ravenel and Sam Thompson flesh out the rest of the rotation.

The keys for Michigan to come away with a win are after the jump:

  • Michigan really cannot afford to get killed on the glass.That could probably be written for any Michigan game, but this holds especially true against OSU. The Buckeyes are the second-best offensive rebounding team in the conference, and they're the best defensive rebounding team (which is pretty irrelevant as Michigan deemphasizes offensive rebounding). Michigan will need to do a much better job of team rebounding -- the double teams on Sullinger often lead to poor boxing out with guys trying to get back to their man -- and getting out in transition. If they can keep the much more athletic Buckeyes off of the glass, they will have rectified the biggest factor in Michigan's earlier loss.
  • Trey's offense needs to be better than the legendary defense of Aaron Craft. This is definitely easier said than done, and I have no idea how or if it can happen. If it's not pretty apparent by now, Michigan's offense is heavily reliant on the playmaking ability of Trey Burke to both score and set up opportunities for teammates. Craft's size, aggressiveness, and lateral quickness put Trey out of his comfort zone in Columbus for the whole game. Burke still finished with 13 points on 5-11 shooting and his 5 assists were negated by 5 turnovers, but he'll somehow have to create much better (and make better decisions with the ball) in order for Michigan's offense to do better this time.
  • Evan Smotrycz and/or Tim Hardaway Jr need to break out of their slumps in a big way. Both of these players had pretty decent days against Illinois, but one, or both, will need to play extremely well and support Burke for Michigan to win. With Smotrycz, some great early play will be the key to his success. An early steal, easy twos, a couple made threes, and Evan will be confident and play well. For Tim, he needs to get to the hoop, draw some fouls (the Wolverines had an abysmal four free throw attempts last time), maybe hit some mid-range shots, and hope that his three point shot falls. Hardaway is Michigan's most talented and gifted player, so it would be huge if he could reach his potential for the first time in months.
  • Contain Sullinger, but don't let him beat you by setting up opportunities for his teammates. Michigan's array of double and triple teams has kept Sullinger relatively in check in his previous four meetings against Michigan (he's only surpassed his career average in points once in four tries against UM), but this comes at a price. If he kicks it out to streaky, but open, shooters like Buford and Thomas and they hit, Michigan will be in trouble. Similarly, if doubling him winds up conceding a lot of offensive rebounds, the Buckeyes should win. I have a feeling that Stu Douglass can put the clamps on Buford, but he or Thomas getting in a rhythm and going off for 20+ points will ensure an OSU victory. They'll have chances because of the defensive emphasis on Sullinger.
  • Jordan Morgan (who I can't believe I haven't mentioned yet) needs to be there. I'm not expecting a points-rebounds double-double for Morgan, and I'm assuming that he'll be in foul trouble for the most point. Still, a solid performance from Jordan Morgan will be instrumental if Michigan wins this game. His post defense simply cannot be replaced by Smotrycz or Blake McLimans, an efficient inside game with a few made field goals and a few trips to the line would open up shots for the three point specialists, and his rebounding is probably unparalleled by anyone else on the roster. Michigan needs J-Mo to stay on the floor and hold up against Sullinger.
  • Michigan needs to hit threes. Of course. Novak, Douglass, Burke, Matt Vogrich, Smotrycz, and Hardaway, if those guys hit an absurd amount of threes efficiently, Michigan will win. It's probably not a prerequisite to winning, but on the other side of the coin, a very cold night will erase any chance of a win.
This is an exceedingly tough game for Michigan to win. Ohio State boasts Ken Pomeroy's top rated defense in the country and has an efficient offense with at least three players capable of taking over the game (Sullinger, Buford and Thomas). A win against Ohio State would pull them back into a tie for second place with Michigan; Michigan State would be a game ahead in the standings with games against Indiana and OSU left. After the OSU game, Michigan is a favorite in each of its remaining games, and with a win, the Wolverines could feasibly finish the regular season with a split Big Ten Title, a 24-7 (14-4) record, and be in position for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Still, I'll have to go with what I predicted in the Eleven Warriors Podcast and take Ohio State in a close game by a couple of possessions, say 63-58.