A rivalry showdown is upon us.
Possibly the two best teams in the Big Ten go head-to-head Sunday afternoon. If you thought, before the season, that Michigan and Ohio State would emerge as those two teams, you’re one of a prescient few.
The Wolverines are ranked third in the AP Top 25, the Buckeyes are ranked fourth. The Wolverines are fourth in KenPom, the Buckeyes are sixth. The Wolverines are projected as a No. 1 seed in ESPN’s latest Bracketology, so are the Buckeyes. It’s the first time that Michigan and Ohio State have met in men’s basketball while both ranked in the Top 5.
Sunday’s clash in Columbus is easily the biggest game of the season so far for both teams, and one of the biggest of the season nationally. Big Ten title and NCAA Tournament implications will be on the line. There will be more than enough fireworks to go around.
Ohio State is red-hot right now. It’s won seven straight games, including road victories over Wisconsin and Iowa, and is averaging 81.1 points per game and an out-of-this-world 1.18 points per possession during that span. The Buckeyes’ recent surge has boosted their offense to third nationally, per KenPom, and second in the Big Ten.
In a league where size is often king, E.J. Liddell has bucked that trend. All Ohio State’s 6-foot-7 big man does is score — 15.5 points per game on just 10.3 shots. At 240 pounds, the junior has enough strength to bang inside, but has knocked down 15 treys as well, at a 34 percent clip, and also gets to the line 5.8 times per game (75.7 percent there). Think the recently-departed Kaleb Wesson, but shorter by two inches.
But it’s hard to survive with a great post player alone, and that’s where Duane Washington (14.9 ppg) comes in. The 6-foot-3 junior from Grand Rapids has never a particularly efficient scorer (38.2 percent from the field this year), but his stats paint the picture of a quality shot-maker regardless. He’s knocking down nearly three 3-pointers per game at 38 percent.
Justice Sueing sat out last season after transferring from California, where he played his first two seasons. At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, Sueing gives the Buckeyes a versatile wing to go with a capable lead guard and big man. He averages 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and he’s athletic enough to make an impact on both ends.
Kyle Young and Justin Ahrens round out the rest of the Buckeyes’ starting lineup, which they’ve used throughout the entirety of their winning streak. Young (8.8 ppg, 5.7 RPG, 55.7 fg%) is one of Ohio State’s tallest players at 6-foot-8, and while that doesn’t make him a rim protector, he’s a super-efficient offensive player (138.2 offensive rating) who can score inside and step out for three as well. The 6-foot-6 Ahrens (7.2 ppg), the brother of former Michigan State swingman Kyle Ahrens, is an absolute sniper: among power-conference players with over 100 attempts from three, he’s hit a higher percentage (46.7) than all but one (Joe Wieskamp of Iowa).
Senior guard C.J. Walker (8.7 ppg, 4.3 APG) comes off the bench but plays the second-most minutes on the team. He’s as close to a “pure” point guard as Ohio State has, with a 25.3 assist rate and 2.2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Walker is a starter for all intents and purposes, but the Buckeyes also have a deep bench apart from him.
Seth Towns might be the biggest name off Ohio State’s bench. The 6-foot-8 forward won Ivy League Player of the Year honors at Harvard as a sophomore, flashing scoring ability from everywhere. Towns has been effective this season but hasn’t played much (4.3 ppg, 9.9 mpg). There’s a reason, though — a knee injury plus an NCAA-mandated sit-out year meant Towns went two years without playing in a game. Several surgeries during this time have limited his contributions, but he’s still dangerous in short bursts.
Musa Jallow (3.3 ppg), a 6-foot-5 junior guard, isn’t much of a shooter — he’s hit just one of his 17 threes this season — but he has a reputation as a feisty defender. Zed Key is a good-sized freshman post (6-foot-8, 245 pounds) averaging 6.0 points and 3.4 rebounds in just 12 minutes per game.
Here’s what makes the Buckeyes so dangerous on offense: all nine of their main rotation players have offensive efficiency ratings above 100, or average. Six are above 110. Four are above 120. If they try to beat you one way and can’t do it, no problem. They’ll find another.
Ohio State simply doesn’t have a weakness offensively. In Big Ten play, it’s fifth in turnover rate, fourth in 3-point shooting, second in 2-point shooting, and tops in free-throw shooting. It gets to the line at the second-highest rate of anyone in the conference, too. Liddell, Washington, Sueing and Walker all attempt more than three FTs per game. The Buckeyes don’t have guys you can afford to foul (Key and Jallow are their only rotation players hitting below 70 percent).
The Buckeyes are far from terrible on the defensive end, though it isn’t their strength. They’re seventh in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency. their opponents’ effective FG% is third-lowest in the league, and they’ve held conference teams to 49 percent shooting from two and 32 percent from three. Their main weakness: they’re forcing less than 10 turnovers per game, fewer than all but two teams in the conference.
While Ohio State doesn’t have holes offensively, it does have tendencies. Chris Holtmann teams are never going to be poorly-coached, and Ohio State’s offensive execution speaks to that. The Buckeyes take over 40 percent of their shots from deep, get to the rim and the free-throw line, run good sets and don’t turn it over. That’s how you build an elite offense without a true household name a la Luka Garza or Ayo Dosunmu.
But it does play somewhat into Michigan’s hands. The Wolverines are elite at forcing teams to do exactly the opposite of what Ohio State wants to do. In Big Ten play, they’re allowing the lowest free-throw rate in the league, and the second-lowest rate of 3-point attempts as well. If they can keep track of Ahrens and Washington and play acceptable defense against Liddell, opportunities will be there for them to take advantage.
Ohio State’s playing as well as anyone in the country. Michigan’s been as good as anyone in the country all season. Sit back and enjoy a rare regular-season showdown of this magnitude and talent, with two rivals coming in quality form, but don’t count on it being anything but a close game.