When Michigan and Ohio State met in Columbus on Feb. 21, they delivered arguably the game of the season.
The Wolverines and Buckeyes meet once more this Saturday in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. It’s going to be hard to top what went down three weeks ago. But the stakes are just a tiny bit higher now. That can’t count for nothing.
In any case, both teams are in somewhat different places from where they were ahead of their last meeting, a 92-87 Michigan win. Particularly Ohio State, which was absolutely rolling coming in. But the Buckeyes dropped three straight following that loss, and in the first two rounds of the BTT escaped Minnesota and Purdue by the skin of their teeth. Michigan’s looked ... well, fine in its six games since that Sunday, going 4-2 including its quarterfinal win over Maryland.
It’s tempting to throw recent results more or less out the window, and I’m going to do that. Ohio State, for the way it limped down the stretch, is still No. 7 in KenPom and possesses the nation’s fourth-best offense. It just averaged 1.23 points per possession against the third-best defense in the Big Ten in Purdue.
The stage is set for another really, really fun game of basketball. Here are a few things to keep an eye on when watching it. (If you want a breakdown of the Buckeyes as a team, you can find it at this link.)
What’s Kyle Young’s status? - Just as Eli Brooks is, in many ways, the Wolverines’ glue, Young holds the Buckeyes together. He’s their longest-tenured player and most efficient offensive option. At 6-foot-8, 225 pounds, he gives them a needed physical element in the post, and he’s averaging 8.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game on 56 percent shooting from two and 43 percent shooting from three.
Young scored 18 points on four 3-pointers against Purdue before leaving after just 19 minutes. He took a hit to the head and did not return. He’s currently being evaluated for a possible concussion.
Without Young on the floor, Ohio State had to rely more on Zed Key and Seth Towns. Towns scored 11 points, including a pair of triples, while Key scored three points, all coming from the line, in 13 minutes.
Towns could be an X-factor of sorts. His statistics this year don’t reflect the kind of player he was when healthy at Harvard, where he won the Ivy League’s Player of the Year award as a sophomore. He’s a 6-foot-8 forward with shooting range and versatility who just needs to find his stride.
How will Michigan weather the storm? With 4:38 to play in the first half Friday, Maryland led 36-24 and was shooting 73 percent from the field. The Terrapins ended the game shooting 48 percent from the field and 30 percent from beyond the arc. Their first 16 minutes were clearly unsustainable, and the Wolverines knew it.
Michigan's zone has basically been on a bet on Maryland's shooting regressing to the mean. A bold strategy, but one that is working.— Dylan Burkhardt (@umhoops) March 12, 2021
Maryland finally switched to zone defense after that last timeout. Allowing 1.35 PPP means you have to try something. pic.twitter.com/TPUQMChXRh
Doing the same against the Buckeyes doesn’t seem quite as wise. Ohio State just has too many weapons. Michigan will have to do more than stay the course Saturday — it’s going to have to make first-half shots of its own. The Wolverines and Buckeyes both averaged over 1.3 points per possession in their first matchup. Impressive, certainly, but not a fluke. Both teams are likely to score a ton of points unless one of them flinches.
Can Isaiah Livers get going? - Livers played only 15 minutes Friday, the product of a scoreless, 0-of-5 shooting game and a solid outing from Chaundee Brown. But plain and simple, Michigan needs more from him. The Wolverines’ keystone is averaging just 6.3 points over his last four games while shooting 23 percent from deep. Whether he’s shooting or not, Livers is going to have to make a much greater impact on the game for Michigan to advance to the Big Ten championship game, not to mention March.
What happens when Hunter Dickinson gets in foul trouble? - Maryland’s first-half surge and the Wolverines’ cold spell came when Dickinson went to the bench with his second foul, with 9:08 before halftime. The Terrapins went on a 17-9 run over the next five minutes.