Despite knocking the socks off the Purdue Boilermakers at the Crisler Center on Thursday night, the Michigan Wolverines still have an uphill climb to make the NCAA Tournament. Still, 13-9 looks and feels a whole lot better than 12-10, and the Wolverines hope to continue this turnaround of their season.
Don’t look now folks, but the Wolverines have not lost in Ann Arbor since Dec. 11 against Minnesota. The upset 82-58 win over the Boilermakers proves just how difficult it is to top Michigan on their home court.
Ohio State will look to do just that, coming in as the No. 16 team in the country. The Buckeyes come to Michigan after losing a heartbreaker in Piscataway against Rutgers earlier in the week. That marks two losses out of the Buckeyes' last three games, both coming on the road in the Big Ten.
It’s a toss-up between two teams capable of plenty when they are hot. This Ohio State team once toppled the No. 1 overall Duke Blue Devils earlier in the year. And we all saw on Thursday what the Wolverines can do if they are hitting shots. Let’s look at the difference-makers on the Buckeyes’ side of things heading into this matchup.
Junior forward E.J. Liddell
Pretty much every team in the Big Ten has a dominant big man. And maybe the best overall player out of that bunch is E.J. Liddell. According to noted basketball advanced analytics expert Evan Miyakawa, Liddell is the only player in the last 20 years to average 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.5 blocks, and shoot 40% from three. He should easily be in the conversation for player of the year in the Big Ten and in the country.
Liddell is the No. 4 scorer in the conference this season and may be a one-of-one big man in the country showing the capability to pull up from this deep:
EJ Liddell's game is so versatile. pic.twitter.com/OmAE9FmFeM— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) December 1, 2021
His ability to stretch the floor is what makes him so dangerous. Bigger posts like Hunter Dickinson and Kofi Cockburn have struggled in the past defending from that far out from the paint. And smaller defenders can be bullied by his athletic 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame. That size also makes him capable of banging around in the post with those elite Big Ten big men.
Liddell has nine games with 20 or more points this season and the Buckeyes are 7-2 in those contests. Keeping him at bay will be a huge part of a Michigan win on Saturday.
Freshman guard Malaki Branham
Many wondered where the perimeter scoring would come from for the Buckeyes in 2021-22 after they lost one of their best players, Duane Washington, to the NBA Draft.
True freshman Malaki Branham has answered that call. He is nowhere near as complete of a player as Washington was but certainly is capable of putting on a performance. Branham has scored more than 20 points in three of the past 10 games. And in that stretch, he has shot 47.5% from behind the arc with four attempts per game.
Branham is a volume shooter with more than 10 shots in each of the last four games. But when he is hot, he makes a lot of shots. A few weeks ago he dropped 35 points on 13-of-19 shooting in an overtime win over Nebraska. He was also 4-of-5 from deep in Ohio State’s loss to Rutgers:
@MalakiBranham can't miss!— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) February 10, 2022
He has 19 points and four 3-pointers for @OhioStateHoops pic.twitter.com/0JHsiuPg8X
Perimeter defense has been a struggle for the Wolverines at points this season, and they will have to be sharp if they want to top the Buckeyes on Saturday. Because of guys like Liddell and Branham lighting it up from deep, Ohio State is the No. 3 team in the Big Ten from three, shooting 37.8%. Michigan will have to put pressure on Ohio State’s best shooters to win this one.