Who: Ohio State Buckeyes (16-10, 8-5 Big Ten)
When: Tuesday, February 16th, at 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Where: Value City Arena -- Columbus, Ohio
Michigan versus Ohio State always is of the utmost importance, and that's especially the case for two specific reasons. First, this will be Michigan's last matchup against either of its two main rivals -- the other being Michigan State, of course -- unless U-M meets one in the Big Ten Tournament. However, the Wolverines haven't beaten the Buckeyes or the Spartans in football or basketball this academic calendar. Therefore, they need a win tonight to prevent being swept by their two main rivals in the two most popular sports.
Second, this is Michigan's second-most winnable game remaining on the schedule, and, contrary to some beliefs, Michigan likely needs two more regular-season wins to secure an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. The home win against Purdue on Saturday was a big boost, but, right now, Michigan is only the last #9 seed on Bracket Matrix and only #49 in RPI. The thought that Michigan can close with a 1-4 record and only a win against Northwestern and still be safe is dubious. If that was to happen, Michigan's projected RPI would be 63 entering the Big Ten Tournament according to RPI Wizard, and the Wolverines likely would have only three RPI top-100 wins. That would put them squarely on the bubble and leave them at risk. However, if Michigan can add a fourth RPI top-100 win, U-M would be an excellent shape. And tonight's their best chance to do it.
Ohio State is experiencing a rare downswing during the Thad Matta tenure. In the 10 seasons that the Buckeyes have been eligible to participate in the NCAA Tournament, they made it nine times and in each of the last seven. However, that streak likely will be broken this season. Ohio State is 16-10 overall and has a shiny 8-5 conference record only because it's benefited from the softest Big Ten schedule to date. For example, other than the great neutral-site win over Kentucky back in December, the Buckeyes' best win is against Northwestern, who's #92 on KenPom. They have no other top-100 wins. Thus, they are only #71 on KenPom, #84 on RPI, and out of the NCAA Tournament picture.
The reason for the downswing? Ohio State is incredibly young. The Buckeyes' rotation consists of only one player who isn't a sophomore or freshman, and he's a junior. Accordingly, KenPom lists them as 346th out of 351 D-I teams in experience. There is talent on this team as this roster is filled with former four-stars. However, none of them are near the caliber of D'Angelo Russell, and it'll take some time -- maybe next season -- for them to mature, develop, and put all the pieces of the puzzle together. There have been flashes of that this season, when Ohio State looks like a juggernaut, and it usually happens at home. No surprise that a young team would play better when comfortable.
That talent and athleticism seem to show on the defensive end, where Ohio State is 36th in adjusted efficiency (95.5), particularly in the paint. Ohio State is 28th in eFG% because few teams protect the rim better. The Buckeyes have held opponents to only 42.6 percent on their twos (21st) and blocked 14.7 percent of their opponents' shots (12th). They also do a great job of staying disciplined when they contest these shots (58th in FTR) and grabbing their opponents' misses (96th in DR%). Teams have had more success behind the arc against Ohio State (218th in 3PA%, 113th in 3P%), but it's unclear if that's because Ohio State's perimeter defense is subpar or if those teams fear attacking the rim vs. OSU.
Where the talent struggles to come out is on offense as Ohio State is 140th in adjusted offensive efficiency (105.0). It's difficult to describe this offense because there's not much that stands out. The Buckeyes rank between 157th and 218th in all four offensive factors. It's an average offense in almost every aspect, except the Buckeyes don't fare well at the free-throw line (305th in FT%) or record many assists (290th in ast%). However, Ohio State is much better when it is able to push the tempo. The Buckeyes are 64th in eFG% in transition (59.6) and 222nd in eFG% when not in transition (47.7). They probably should seek to run the break more (168th in adj. tempo) because they sputter in the half court.
Ohio State is led by a trio of forwards -- 6-foot-7 junior Marc Loving, 6-foot-7 sophomore Keita Bates-Diop, and 6-foot-4 sophomore Jae'Sean Tate -- all of whom average 11-plus PPG and five-plus RPG. Loving can get to the free-throw line (47.5 FTR in B1G play), but he functions as a jump-shooter. However, he's been slumping. After making 46.1 percent of his threes last season, he's made only 31.1 percent this season and only 12-of-51 (23.5 pct.) in his last 11 games. Add in that he has a bad habit for turnovers (19.8 pct.), and his offensive rating in conference play has dropped below 90 (89.7).
Bates-Diop is more versatile than Loving. He splits his field-goal tries almost evenly among shots at the rim, mid-range jumpers, and three-pointers. He's more efficient when he gets to the bucket (72.0 pct.), but he's a decent jump-shooter as well (34.7 3P%). Bates-Diop also takes care of the ball much better than Loving (13.4 TO%) and has a stronger defensive presence (4.2 blk%). Plus, Bates-Diop isn't amidst a slump right now as he just registered 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting and 14 boards in his last game versus Rutgers.
Tate is three inches shorter than Loving and Bates-Diop, but he plays more like a power forward than the other two. Only 16 percent of his shots are threes, though he makes them at a solid rate (36.8 pct.), because Tate does most of his work inside. He's converted 54.5 percent of his twos and scores well around the basket despite his lack of height. However, he's not as much of a driver as Loving or Bates-Diop because his makes close to the hoop tend to be assisted almost twice as much. Tate also is very good on the offensive glass (7.3 OR%) and leads the team in put-backs. Tate essentially is a miniature 4, and, for two years, his playing style has been very similar to former Spartan Branden Dawson.
Feeding these three Buckeyes is 6-foot-5 freshman point guard JaQuan Lyle, who was the jewel of Ohio State's 2015 class. He's the only player on the team that averages more than two APG (4.5), and his assist rate is superb (30.8 pct.). However, he still has trouble orchestrating the offense because he is sloppy with the basketball (23.2 TO%), and he's inconsistent as a scorer (9.9 PPG). Lyle can go off for 20-plus points one game and then fail to make a field goal in the next game. Much of that stems from the fact he's not a strong shooter, making only 46.9 percent of his twos and 26.2 percent of his threes. And many of his made shots, even the three-pointers, are off the dribble and not assisted.
At center, Ohio State splits the time between 6-foot-11 sophomore and Trevor Thompson and 6-foot-10 freshman Daniel Giddens. Thompson usually is the starter and averages 6.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 1.4 BPG in just 17.7 MPG. Thompson isn't the best finisher at the rim, but he's still a strong scorer because he can hit his jumpers near the bucket (54.8 2P%). Plus, he knows how to draw contact when he has the ball (56.5 FTR, 76.9 FT%). He's also an excellent rebounder (12.2 OR%, 19.8 DR%) and shot-blocker (8.5 pct.). However, he sometimes can get himself into foul trouble (5.9 FC/40), and that's when Giddens enters. Giddens was a top-50 recruit in Ohio State's 2015 class because of his fantastic athleticism, which manifests itself in the form of his ability to grab offensive rebounds (9.1 OR%) and block shots (10.2 pct.). But he's still raw. He doesn't have much touch outside of a few feet from the field (47.5 2P%) or at the free-throw line (38.3 FT%), fumbles the ball away too much (23.6 TO%), and commits too many fouls (7.0 FC/40).
The other two reserves that will see significant time are 6-foot-2 sophomore shooting guard Kam Williams and 5-foot-9 freshman point guard A.J. Harris. Williams is the main threat, recording 8.0 PPG in just 20.7 MPG, because he's one of the best three-point shooters in the Big Ten. Not only has he made 48.8 percent of his triples this season, he's knocked down 54.2 percent of them in conference play. Defenses can't leave him alone on the perimeter. Harris backs up Lyle, but it's clear why Ohio State wants to go with Lyle as much as it can. Harris has a good assist rate (23.7 pct.), but he turns it over too much (28.1 TO%) and struggles to score inside (33.3 2P%) and outside the arc (33.3 3P%).
Find Fastbreak Opportunities: Michigan doesn't want to push the pace too much because Ohio State's offense will perform much better if this turns into a local pick-up game. That's why Michigan should continue its practice of sending four Wolverines back on defense after the first shot goes up. Nonetheless, Michigan wants to find chances to run the fastbreak and get easy points. The Buckeyes have a stingy half-court defense (13th in non-transition eFG%) due to their ability to defend twos and protect the rim. Michigan can negate that if Derrick Walton pushes it after he grabs his defensive boards.
Heat Up from Three: Ohio State's rock solid interior defense means not only that Michigan will need to finish in traffic but also that it needs to end its cold spell from deep. The Wolverines just had their worst three-point shooting game of the season against Purdue (5-of-20) and have failed to make more than 30.4 percent of their threes in four of the last five games. If Michigan can make its threes, it won't feel as pressured to attack Ohio State's imposing front. Plus, if Michigan can makes its threes, it'll likely exceed 1.04 points per possession, and OSU is 0-8 when an opponent's offense does that.
Contain JaQuan Lyle: There's not much that is remarkable about Ohio State's half-court offense other than that it doesn't have much flow to it. There aren't many assists to go around, but the one Buckeye that can distribute well is Lyle. And he can be a matchup problem for Michigan given that he's 6-foot-5, he can drive into the paint, and the only Ohio State starter shorter than him is the 6-foot-4 power forward. So does that mean Derrick Walton, who's 6-foot-1, must guard him? Or does Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman get that assignment and Michigan tries to hide Walton elsewhere? It's an issue that can lead to Lyle having a big game. But, if he doesn't, Ohio State will be stagnant.
Value City Arena hasn't treated Michigan well in the past decade-plus as Michigan has beaten the Buckeyes in Columbus just once since 2003, and Ohio State's underclassmen have taken well to their home. However, this matchup just seems to favor the Wolverines. Michigan should be able to muster enough points with its shooting, and, as long as the Wolverines don't get rattled in a hostile atmosphere and hand Ohio State free points with turnovers, Ohio State doesn't have the shooting or discipline to keep pace.
Michigan 72, Ohio State 64