1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Ohio State -8
Immortal rivals clash in Ann Arbor in a matchup between two teams trending in very different directions, as the flailing Michigan Wolverines host the twenty-fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at the Crisler Center. Despite carrying the distinction of being the Preseason twenty-fourth-ranked team in the country and ascending as high as seventeenth in the AP Poll, the Wolverines (13-13, 6-8 in Big Ten) have completely fallen off the radar, losing six of their last seven outings, including five straight heading into today’s encounter with the Buckeyes. John Beilein’s charges started the campaign well enough, winning six of their first seven contests, with their only loss coming against now sixth-ranked Villanova in a narrow 60-55 defeat. Injuries have ravaged this promising group, as two out of their top three scorers are out for the season with an assortment of injuries. Leading scorer Caris LeVert went down back on January 17th against Northwestern, while Derrick Walton suffered the same fate a week later in a 69-64 loss at home against Wisconsin. Together, the Guards accounted for 25.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 6.7 assists, with both players netting over 35.0% of their attempts from beyond the arc. Without the former in the lineup, Michigan is a mere 2-6, and without both they are a dreadful 1-5. Now, Beilein has been relegated to playing a number of Freshman much earlier than he would prefer, with as many as seven now seeing significant minutes. Youngsters such as Aubrey Dawkins (12.5 points/40 minutes) and Ricky Doyle (13.7 points/40 minutes) have shown promise and potential, and will continue to cut their teeth until the Big Ten Tournament begins. In the meantime, this team has been robbed of precious depth, which has really become evident in the first half of games; during this current five-game skid, the Wolverines have trailed by an average margin of 9.3 points at Halftime, while losing by 11.2 points per game. Now they are the verge of setting some rather dubious marks; with a loss tonight, Michigan will have lost six consecutive games for the first time since January of 2011, including three straight losses at home in league play, which they haven’t done since February of 2010.
Just take Tuesday’s loss drubbing at the hands of their other arch-rival Michigan State for instance; even in front of the fans as the Crisler Center, the young wolverines could not divert the Spartans’ tide, as they pummeled to the tune of 38-23 through the first twenty minutes of play. The visitors took mercy and lifted their foot off the gas in the second half, but at the point the damage was done, as Beilein saw his kids drop their second game to their neighbors from East Lansing in just seventeen days. The biggest issue was defense, which goes hand in hand with their issues in the depth department, as they permitted their rivals to shoot a ridiculous 6.0% from the field, including a whopping 25-of-32 from within the three-point arc (78.1%). The bruising Spartans battered them on the boards, outrebounding them 32-22 on the night, while yielding seventeen assists and forcing just eight turnovers. On the other end, the Wolverines couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, shooting just 39.6% from the field themselves, including 11-of-26 from inside the three-point line (42.3%). Four out of five starters scored in double-figures, led by Zak Irvin and his sixteen points, but the Bench only accounted for eleven points, which brings us back to the shortage of healthy bodies at their disposal. To put things into perspective, the Wolverines’ reserves scored just eleven points compared to the Spartans’ thirty-one, twenty-two of which were scored by Travis Trice. About the only thing the hosts did well was get to the free-throw line, where they drained twenty-one of their twenty-eight attempts (75.0%), besting the visitors by nine points, meaning the game was even as close as the 80-67 final score would indicate. So with the Buckeyes on deck, what the hell is a Wolverine to do? Well, considering what happened when they last met, and considering they were actually semi-healthy, the prospects aren’t very good for Beilein and Company. Back on January 13th, Michigan was obliterated in the First Half, (sensing a trend here?) as the hosts trounced them 39-24 over the first twenty minutes of action. Even with LeVert and Walton on the floor, they still got hammered 71-52 when the final horn sounded. LeVert led the way with fourteen points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field (40.0%), including 2-of-5 from three (40.0%), long with a pair of rebounds, an assist, and a steal, while Walton didn’t contribute much, accounting for a scant two points on a terrible 1-of-7 shooting (14.3%), racking up more fouls (four) than points in twenty-seven minutes of labor. As a whole, the Wolverines were rendered largely inert, shooting 33.9% from the field, including 6-of-26 from downtown (23.1%), committed thirteen turnovers compared to dishing out only eight assists, while managing a disappointing six free-throws. However, they made all six freebies, so there is that to build on.
Meanwhile, as the Wolverines continue to fall, the Buckeyes (19-7, 8-5 in Big Ten) continue to trend upwards with the opportunity to climb the Big Ten mountain as the regular season comes to a close. Part of a four-team logjam behind first-place Wisconsin, Ohio State trails the likes of Michigan State, Maryland, Purdue by one full game for second place in the league. And with games against Nebraska, and Penn State, including home games versus both Purdue and Wisconsin on tap, it is a very likely possibility that Thad Matta’s charges could ascend the conference ladder before the tournament begins in three weeks time. With that said, what better way to start a run than by thumping your arch-rival in their own building? As we covered earlier, when these teams last met, it wasn’t much of a contest, as the home-side welcomed the Wolverines into Columbus only to send them packing with a nineteen-point loss. The hosts shot a solid 49.1% from the field, with most of their damage coming from within the three-point arc, where they shot 23-of-39 (59.0%). In the end, they were highly-efficient, assisting on a healthy twenty of their twenty-eight field goals (71.4%), while capitalizing on Michigan’s mistakes, forcing eleven steals. Freshman Guard D’Angelo Russell scored a game-high twenty-one points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field (50.0%), along with four rebounds, six assists, and four steals. Sam Thompson and Amir Williams accounted for twenty-two points in the route, along with eight rebounds and six steals. That victory was of particular significance to the Buckeye Faithful, for it snapped a three-game losing streak in the series. Now, Matta and Co. will be looking for their first season-sweep of the Wolverines in four years.
First things first though, they’ll have to get back on track after they too suffered defeat at the hands of Michigan State in last Saturday’s narrow 59-56 loss. The Spartans jumped out to an early lead, holding a nine-point advantage at the Half, but the visitors were able to nod things back in the second half before falling in the end. As the aforementioned Thompson tied the game with a clutch three-pointer with just 3.2 seconds remaining on the clock, the road-side allowed Denzel Valentine (on Valentine’s Day nonetheless) to bury the game-winner from downtown as time expired. Defensively, the Buckeyes weren’t nearly as sharp as they had been over the previous four contests in which they held opponents to a mere 32.8%, instead allowing 48.0% shooting at the Breslin Center. Matta’s charges offered very little resistance on the perimeter, where Michigan State netted 7-of-15 attempts (46.7%), but also couldn’t manage to throw the ball into the ocean from long-range themselves; Ohio State made just five of their seventeen three-pointers (29.4%), with Shannon Scott and the aforementioned Russell accounting for all but one of those field goals. Speaking of Russell, the nation’s leading Freshman scorner was largely kept in check, totaling a modest ten points on 4-of-13 shooting from the field (33.3%). But with all that said, if Matta was to point to one thing being the cause of defeat, it would in all likelihood be his team’s performance from the charity stripe; after fighting like mad to pull even in the second half, the Buckeyes only managed to net five of their thirteen free-throws (38.5%). In a game decided by three points, eight missed free-throws looms rather large, folks. That’s been a glaring weakness for this team, particularly since league play began. In Big Ten play, Ohio State is shooting just 62.7% from the free-throw line, third-worst in the conference, and all in all their lowest mark since the 1997-1998 campaign in which they clanked their way towards 59.4% shooting. In fact, they’ve actually gotten worse from the line as they have progressed deeper into their schedule, making a mere 57.8% of their freebies over the last five outings. And if there were any particular statistic to serve as a barometer for success for this unit, then it would undoubtedly be their shooting percentage from the stripe; when Ohio State has made a minimum of 67.7% of their free-throws, they are a stellar 11-2 this season. The problem is that outside of Russell, who has the ball in his hands a lot anyway, there just aren’t many players whom you would express confidence when on the line. Out of the nine Buckeyes to attempt a free-throw in conference play, only Russell and Keita Bates-Diop have shot over 70.0%, with a whopping six shooting below 60.0%. In the words of Charles Barkley, “MA-MA-MAKE YOUR FREE-THROWS!!!!”