Who: 12-4 (2-2) Ohio State Buckeyes
When: 7 ET (ESPN)
Where: Value City Arena -- Columbus, Ohio
I sit here writing this during the Ohio State-Oregon game, so forgive me if this one is a little scattered.
In any case, Michigan heads to Columbus with a 3-1 record, feeling about as good as they possibly could given the overall state of things at the end of the nonconference slate. Still, it feels like Michigan is just chugging along like a rusty bucket of bolts, like the Millennium Falcon (but hey, Han didn't do so bad with that ride). In the end, 3-1 is 3-1, even if it took two second-half comebacks to make that happen.
Nonetheless, Ohio State will present by far Michigan's toughest conference challenge to date, despite their 2-2 mark in conference play. Columbus is not a place Michigan has had much success, last year's win notwithstanding -- but, crazier things have happened, and the Buckeyes have already lost at home during Big Ten play, when Iowa edged them 71-65 on Dec. 30.
All in all, this is one that you don't really expect to win (of course, for the players and coaches, it's a different story). Realistically, a competitive game is all you want. Michigan needs a few road wins along the way, but Columbus is not the most likely destination in which they'll collect one.
If they lose, fine, they're 3-2 heading into tilts against Northwestern and Rutgers before the Wisconsin Badgers roll into Ann Arbor Jan. 24. If they win? Well, wouldn't that be something.
At 13-4, the Buckeyes have taken losses: at Louisville (64-55), UNC (82-74), Iowa (71-65) and at Indiana (69-66).
In the win column, they defeated Illinois (RPI No. 53) at home; their next best win came against No. 86 Wright State. Iowa checks in at No. 66, Indiana at No. 60, Louisville at No. 25 and UNC at No. 13. So, they lost to the top teams on the nonconference schedule (they trailed at Louisville by 17 at the half) and beat everyone they should; that is, until conference play, when they suffered a loss to the Fighting Frans at home.
Of course, as we all know, Big Ten play is an entirely different animal. It's still a little early to say what this Ohio State team is, but one thing's for sure: Michigan is probably going to need to play its best game to date if it is going to come away with a win.
During the summer previews, i wondered if true freshman D'Angelo Russell would be able to shoulder the scoring burden right away for a Buckeyes squad that struggled on the offensive end last season -- well, he's done exactly that.
Russell, a five-star recruit, is averaging 17.9 ppg while shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-5 guard also pitches in 4.6 rebounds per game and 4.9 assists per game. Basically, he does it all, and is the engine that makes this team go.
He's scored in the double digits in every Big Ten game to date, but has alternated between hot and cold shooting; unsurprisingly, the games in which he's struggled from the field, Ohio State lost. He went 4-for-16 against Iowa and 3-for-15 at Indiana, an intimidating environment for anyone, let alone a freshman. However, against Illinois he scored 22 on 7-for-13 shooting and in a double overtime thriller at Minnesota, dropped 27 on 10-for-17 shooting. It should be noted, however, that he scored 25 of those 27 points at The Barn in the first half (yes, you read that right). Whatever adjustments Richard Pitino made at the half worked, because Russell scored just two points in the final 25 minutes of play.
With that said, after missing all seven of his second-half field goal attempts, he wasn't shaken, and buried a pair of key free throws in overtime to push OSU to victory.
Point guard Shannon Scott is Russell's backcourt running mate. Like Aaron Craft, Scott is more of a defender and distributor than a scorer. Scott averages 8.4 ppg, a team-high 7.2 assists per game and 2.4 steals per game. However, he shoots just 28 percent from three.
In the frontcourt, forwards Sam Thompson (10.2 ppg) and Marc Loving (12.0 ppg) each bring a different style. Loving is a shooter, burying 50 percent of his 60 three-point attempts (second to only Russell, who has 101). Thompson, a 6-foot-7 senior from Chicago, is more of a slasher and inside-the-arc operator; he's 50 percent from the field but just 23 percent from three.
The 6-foot-11 Amir Williams, of Detroit, slots in at the 5 (7.4 ppg, a team-high 5.1 rpg). He's beaten Michigan up on the boards in the past; Ricky Doyle et al will need to be ready to put a body on him when the shots go up.
Thad Matta has shortened his bench of late, with freshmen like G Kam Williams, F Keita Bates-Diop and F Jae'Sean Tate not getting quite as much run. Williams has played a combined 16 minutes in OSU's last three games and Bates-Diop just 21.
However, Tate had a nice game at Indiana, scoring 12 on 3-for-4 shooting in 24 minutes. If there's a bench player to watch out for, it's the 6-foot-4 Pickeringtonian, Tate. He is decidedly not a three-point threat, though (1-for-9 on the season).
- Boards: don't get killed. The Buckeyes come in 4th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, but 12th in the same stat at the other end. Maybe Michigan can get a few extra chances on the offensive boards? They certainly had some key ones against Minnesota, and, in a game that's sure to be fairly low-scoring, a few more second chances could be what the Wolverines need to stay in it. On the defensive glass, however, the Wolverines just need to not get killed. Easier said than done, of course.
- Russell. The freshman is The Guy; contain him and you've got a chance. Say what you will about Caris LeVert's struggles on the offensive end, but in this one, what he does on the defensive end might be more important. LeVert has the length to make life tough for opponents; in the Big Ten, there's no rest for the weary, so LeVert will have to bring it once again.
- Shot for shot. OSU is second during Big Ten play in eFG% (behind only Wisconsin, of course) but just 10th in three-point field goal percentage. Michigan, meanwhile, is third in the latter, seemingly having crawled out of the hole of their earlier shooting funk. Surprise surprise: Ohio State will likely win the points in the paint battle. Can Michigan overcome that with outside shooting? Tune in at 7 p.m. ET to find out!*
It's still difficult to get a feel for this Ohio State squad and where it will ultimately land in the Big Ten standings. The fact that Iowa beat them in Columbus is reassuring, but by no means an assurance of anything positive for the Wolverines. While this isn't the same thing as the gridiron rivalry, it's still a big game for both teams, and the crowd will certainly be fired up, especially with the football team coming home to celebrate last night's impressive thumping of Oregon.
My gut tells me this has the makings of an ugly slog, only this time the Wolverines won't be able to claw themselves back into things like they did against Illinois and Minnesota. This isn't a "must-win" in the sense that a loss is a serious hit to anything, but a road conference win against one of of the league's big name squads would definitely make tournament selection time a little less nerve-racking. Crazier things have happened, but I'm not sure this is the time Michigan gets its big road win. Ohio State 63, Michigan 54.