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Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Wolverines Preview: The ones that matter

Monday is one of the few remaining games that actually matters.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite pieces of banter fodder in college athletics is to call one’s rivalry game with their inferior opponent something like “their Super Bowl” (e.g. October 21, 2023). When one school has nothing to play for in a given season, all that is left is to get excited about is that rivalry — the last chance to salvage something positive from an otherwise disappointing year with no real hope for any sort of other achievement.

Unfortunately, we are here with the Michigan Wolverines basketball program. With NCAA Tournament dreams a distant memory, there are really just four games on the schedule that matter from now until the Big Ten Tournament. Neither rival is playing exceptionally well themselves, but like last season, it appears that wins over these schools would be the highlights of a year that will otherwise quickly be forgotten.

Up first is a Martin Luther King Day contest against the Ohio State Buckeyes. As mentioned, the Buckeyes have not been that great this season and sit at 2-3 in a questionable Big Ten with half of those games coming against the unimpressive contingent in the conference. Michigan certainly falls into that bucket as well, but given Ohio State’s track record so far, maybe there is hope for at least one positive outing this season.

Ohio State Buckeyes (12-4, 2-3) at Michigan Wolverines (6-10, 1-4)

Date & Time: Monday, Jan. 15, 12 p.m. ET
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
TV/Streaming: FOX

Despite a Kenpom ranking of No. 42 nationally, Ohio State looks far from convincing, particularly since beating Alabama on a neutral floor in November. The Buckeyes are 3-3 against Power Six competition since then and have lost their last two to Indiana and Wisconsin, with in-conference metrics no better than Michigan’s. The defense has been pretty rough, allowing at least 1.11 PPP in these losses and is bottom-five in Big Ten play in adjusted efficiency and two-point shooting.

The other end of the floor is closer to average, and the Buckeyes shoot much better relatively from behind the arc than inside it. They certainly are not afraid to launch it, and they annoyingly collect a bunch of offensive rebounds, which is obviously going to be a problem for the Michigan defense. Jamison Battle is the one to watch, as the Minnesota transfer has hit 25 (!) threes in the past five games. With a 46.8 percent accuracy mark, he ranks among the top-10 nationally from long range.

Make them count

Thursday’s collapse against Maryland was all too familiar, but it still was clear that this team needs Dug McDaniel. The sophomore has cooled off a bit lately, going a combined 7-for-18 against Minnesota and Penn State, but maybe there is a bright spot in his unfortunate situation. McDaniel knows he will be missing 40 percent of the remaining games, so there is no sense in holding anything back while at Crisler. He already leads the team at 36.1 minutes per game, and do not expect the coaches to back away from that, even as Jaelin Llewellyn gets back to full strength.

Just because he needs to maximize his opportunities, though, does not mean McDaniel should go wild. He certainly is someone who shows a willingness to drive to the basket, but he also is the team’s best passer and facilitator. Ohio State does not have the most intimidating defense, and there should be opportunities to exploit. I expect the offense to look a lot less stagnant on Monday than it did in the second half against Maryland, and a lot of that responsibility falls on the imperfect, yet important point guard.