Journey to the Tourney: OSU at Michigan

Michigan is coming off a tough road loss to Indiana over the weekend. The Wolverines lost their No. 1 slot in The Associated Press poll as a result.

But they could begin a journey back to the top of the standings when No. 10 Ohio State travels to Ann Arbor on Tuesday night. The last time the two teams played one another, the Buckeyes earned a 56-53 victory over the Wolverines and ruined the latter’s chances of earning a No. 1 ranking the following day.

Here are five questions entering a matchup that will impact the Big Ten title race:

1. Can Deshaun Thomas do it alone? The junior combo forward is one of the most effective scorers in the country. He has a 118.1 offensive rating (20th among players who use at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions). But Thomas will need help Tuesday and beyond. And that’s been one of Ohio State’s problems this year. He went 8-for-18 and scored 20 points the last time these two teams met. He was the only scorer, however, that registered double figures in a three-point win. But he recorded 28 points at Michigan State on Jan. 19 and 24 points at Illinois on Jan. 5. The Buckeyes lost both games. They’ll need some balance to beat a hungry Wolverines squad on the road.

2. What about the other Wolverines? Sure, Trey Burke is the catalyst for the Big Ten’s No. 2 scoring offense (74.4 ppg). But Michigan lost to Indiana on Saturday in part because the other Wolverines missed must-have shots. Glenn Robinson III was 1-for-6. Nik Stauskas was 3-for-10. Can’t happen against the Buckeyes, who have the second-ranked scoring defense (57.0 ppg allowed) in the league. Burke’s supporting cast has to be effective, too.

3. How important are the bigs for both teams? Both teams have been offensively inconsistent inside. Michigan’s frontcourt (Jon Horford, Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan) is more advanced on offense than Ohio State’s (Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel). But both play a secondary role to the talented wings on their respective rosters. Still, their defensive presence is vital. Williams is third in the Big Ten in blocks (2.0 per game). His ability to alter shots at the rim will definitely impact the matchup. John Beilein’s maneuvering between a 2-3 zone and a man-to-man setup confused the Buckeyes in the first meeting. His frontcourt depth enhances his D and its ability to use multiple schemes. He can go with small or big lineups, zone or man. That’s a lot for any opposing coach to consider. The stat sheet may not give either squad’s big men a lot of love. But they’ll definitely be significant.

4. Could Aaron Craft singlehandedly control the game? It’s Burke versus Craft. Always. This is a matchup that features one of the nation’s best on-the-ball defenders and the country’s best point guard. Fireworks. Michigan can’t win without an effective Burke. And the last time these two teams met Burke scored 15 points in a 4-for-13 performance. Craft’s pressure on Burke stalled the Michigan offense. A repeat of that performance could turn the game in Ohio State’s favor again. Craft, who leads the Big Ten in steals with 2.3 per game, is that relentless. He can control this entire game with his defensive tools.

5. Should anyone bet against Burke in this scenario? No. There are a lot of numbers to consider in this contest. And they all suggest that both teams are capable of leaving Crisler Arena with a victory. Ohio State beat Michigan once. The Buckeyes could do it again. Michigan is one of the nation’s most talented teams. And the Wolverines are at home. So what’s the deciding factor? For me, it’s Burke. I don’t think the sophomore will allow Michigan to lose two consecutive games, especially when its next opponent is a visiting rival. I expect to see another close matchup. But Burke’s playmaking ability will elevate Michigan in a single digit win. Ohio State won the first matchup but the Buckeyes had to hold off a determined Wolverines squad in the second half. I believe Michigan will begin this game how it ended the first one. Except this time, the Wolverines will get the win.