One of the most heated rivalries in college sports will have the hardwood as its platform on Saturday, when the Michigan Wolverines play host to the Ohio State Buckeyes (6 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app) for a Sonic Blockbuster matchup with stakes that transcend mere interstate bragging rights.
The host Wolverines, a top-10 team to start the year, had been among the most disappointing teams in college basketball in 2021-22 before destroying Purdue 82-58 on Thursday night. Keeping the good times rolling with a win over the 16th-ranked Buckeyes would further bolster their place in the NCAA tournament Bracketology projections and Bubble Watch outlook. OSU, meanwhile, is in a better spot for NCAA tourney purposes but is trying to rebound from a dispiriting loss at Rutgers on Wednesday night.
ESPN's college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway made their predictions for Ohio State/Michigan while also identifying other games of interest and sizing up the coach of the year race in college basketball:
What would a win for Michigan on Saturday night say about the Wolverines' chances to reach the NCAA tournament? Are you buying or selling No. 16 Ohio State as a second-weekend team?
Medcalf: After Thursday night's beatdown of No. 3 Purdue -- can any team in the Big Ten maintain momentum? -- it's clear Michigan has the talent to compete with the best teams in the country. Hunter Dickinson looks like the Hunter Dickinson we thought we'd see entering the season. He is not just playing well, he's also competing with a swagger that seems to impact the entire roster. That 3-pointer he hit over Zach Edey in the second half on Thursday night and the dance that followed? That's a dude you want trying to carry you into the postseason.
But looks can be deceiving. This is still a team that entered that Purdue game with a NET ranking in the high 40s and the win over Purdue also means the Wolverines are 2-5 in Quad 1 opportunities. They would be 3-5 with a win at Ohio State on Saturday. And now you're really in the conversation. But you still gotta explain that home loss to Minnesota and another L at Rutgers. Those are the types of losses that could be the deciding factors and cost Michigan a bid, even with a solid finish. Still, a win over Ohio State on Saturday would make me bullish on Michigan's shot at turning things around and hearing its name called on Selection Sunday.
I think Ohio State can be a Sweet 16 team, and then let's see its matchup. The Buckeyes have obviously taken some tough losses this season. But none of them have unfolded in Columbus and Wednesday's matchup at Rutgers was Ohio State's first top-60 KenPom loss. I think E.J. Liddell (42% from the 3-point line in Big Ten play) is going to be the best player on the floor in a lot of games. Ohio State is a good 3-point shooting team and although its defensive metrics are subpar, the Buckeyes handed Duke its worst loss of the season when they held the Blue Devils to just 94 points per 100 possessions in a 71-66 win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. I think Ohio State is a good team stuck in a perplexing league, and can win a few games in March.
Medcalf score prediction: Ohio State 74-69
Geo Baker leads Rutgers with a 25-point performance in a 66-64 win over Ohio State.
Borzello: After looking like one of the most disappointing teams in the country for the first two months of the season, Michigan is playing itself into the NCAA tournament discussion. The Wolverines aren't quite there yet, but their dominant win over Purdue on Thursday night gets them in the conversation. They've won six of their last eight games since a 7-7 start, with the win over the Boilermakers giving them a marquee win for the résumé. They'll need more of those, but they'll have plenty of chances. That starts with Ohio State on Saturday, and a win there might get Michigan into most projected brackets on Monday. Seven of their final eight games are against teams projected to be in the tournament field, too.
Right now, I would sell Ohio State as a second-weekend team. The Buckeyes haven't quite looked the same since their three-week pause in December. Prior to that, they had wins over Duke, Wisconsin and Seton Hall but they haven't beaten a projected NCAA tournament team since returning to action in early January. In fact, they're only 5-4 in their last nine games after Wednesday's two-point loss at Rutgers. We need to see Chris Holtmann's team get back to their early-season form. Liddell is enough to carry them at times and the emergence of freshman Malaki Branham has been a boost, but their defense in Big Ten play just hasn't been good enough.
Borzello score prediction: Michigan, 76-71
Gasaway: Taking care of Ohio State on Saturday night would earn the Wolverines their second Quad 1 win in less than 48 hours after having recorded one (at Indiana) over the previous three months. It would also put this team closer to the projected field of 68 than anyone thought possible three weeks ago. Michigan's getting significant contributions on offense from players other than Dickinson, and a victory over OSU would put the Big Ten on notice that the resounding Purdue win was not just an off night for the Boilermakers.
Put me down as buying the Buckeyes as a second-weekend team. At the moment Chris Holtmann has the best offense in the league not named "Purdue." E.J. Liddell is the true Renaissance man in an absurdly crowded field of Big Ten POY candidates. The junior scores from the field, gets to the line, rebounds, distributes the ball and defends the rim. Not to mention Zed Key and Branham feast on defenses preoccupied with stopping Liddell. This interior D can look permissive at times, but OSU has outscored the Big Ten by a healthy margin anyway. Sweet 16? Buy, buy, buy.
Gasaway score prediction: Michigan, 70-67
Who would get your national coach of the year pick if you had to cast your ballot right now? And as a bonus, name a coach who probably won't win any coach of the year awards but has gotten your attention for his good work in 2021-22.
Borzello: I think the race for coach of the year is wide open, with at least six legitimate candidates making strong cases. I can see it going to Shaka Smart, Ed Cooley, Tommy Lloyd and I can even make an argument for Mark Adams, Greg Gard or someone else. But Bruce Pearl is my pick. Auburn was a borderline Top 25 team entering the season, with three transfers and a potential No. 1 pick freshman leading the way. He's gotten everyone to buy in and the top-ranked Tigers are a clear national title contender despite Tuesday night's loss at Arkansas. They've yet to lose in regulation this season.
Bruce Pearl celebrates in style after Auburn completes a season sweep over Alabama.
I don't see John Calipari winning a coach of the year award this season, mostly because it's Kentucky and coach of the year tends to go to coaches that greatly exceed expectations -- and well, the Wildcats always have the utmost expectations. But I've thought for a couple weeks that Kentucky is the best team in the country, or at least the team I'd pick over anyone else on a neutral court, and that is certainly a better-than-expected campaign for Kentucky. Calipari changed his roster-building process, going away from stockpiling five-star freshmen and instead going into the transfer portal and nabbing three starters to go with frosh guard TyTy Washington Jr. Wake Forest's Steve Forbes is another that belongs in this category.
Gasaway: I suppose at the top one should note that Mark Few is the master of all he surveys in a unique space that's not entirely amenable to coach of the year honors. His team dominates every year and very often gets to the national championship game. One of these times, quite possibly this year, the Bulldogs will win it all. Yet because we know in advance that the Zags are going to rampage through the entire season, no one ever stops and says, "Few has done an exceptionally good job with this team," or anything like that. So I'll pitch a different coach in accordance with these longstanding ground rules.
You know my COY pick is completely off-trend because he lost a game the last time we saw his team in action. I'm going with Kelvin Sampson. He just went to a Final Four and his team is 20-3. Sampson's getting this done without my preseason pick for American player of the year, Marcus Sasser, who suffered a season-ending injury in December. And Sampson's getting this done at a program that had been to one NCAA tournament in 22 years before he was hired. As a spectator you know exactly what you're going to get from Houston in every game. You're going to get defense and offensive rebounding. Sampson has transformed the program, and I can't wait to see UH compete in the Big 12 starting in 2023-24.
Medcalf: I think it is Bruce Pearl's award and the field is vying for second place. Who had Auburn soaring to the top of college basketball and positioning itself for a top seed? We all knew Jabari Smith was a legit five-star prospect, but I don't know who predicted he'd put himself in the conversation as a potential No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft. Auburn has two losses this season: both in overtime. And the Tigers have dominated some of the top teams in the country. LSU by 15. Kentucky by 9. (Yes, Kentucky fans. TyTy Washington got hurt that game. We know.) Alabama by 1,954 points. At least, it seemed that way.
I'm with John on the second part of the question. He's not going to win the award, but Kelvin Sampson deserves recognition. I know we've kind of fallen into this "Well, this is just what Kelvin Sampson does." That's a testament to his résumé and accomplishments. We expect him to excel. But, man. You lose Sasser, your leading scorer, and Tramon Mark basically in the same week just before conference play and you're still leading the American Athletic Conference's standings? That's impressive.
Cole Swider, Joseph Girard III, and Buddy Boeheim each gets a piece of action in the first half with 3-pointers.
What is one beneath-the-radar game that you'll have your eye on this weekend?
Gasaway: Syracuse at Virginia Tech. A little more than two weeks ago, the Hokies lost at home to Miami on a spectacular buzzer-beater by Charlie Moore. The defeat dropped this team to 10-10 and 2-7 in the ACC. But since that time Mike Young's group has won four straight, and a win over the Orange would get Tech to .500 in the ACC. Even when the Hokies were 10-10, the NET rankings stood by Young's guys like a loyal friend. Now Virginia Tech's knocking on the door of the top 40. With a victory here, this team would look quite bubbly. And don't ask what's the big deal about a win at home over Syracuse. With only a slight cooldown at Boston College, the Orange have been absolutely on fire on offense the past two weeks. Ask Wake Forest about losing 94-72 to the band of Boeheims.
Medcalf: I'll go with Northern Iowa at Loyola Chicago on Sunday. Missouri Valley Conference action is always interesting this time of year. Loyola Chicago is in the mix for an at-large bid but it might need to secure the league's automatic qualifier to get into the field of 68 ... assuming it is allowed to compete in the postseason tournament prior to its move to the Atlantic 10. Enter Northern Iowa, a team that is one two-point loss at Bradley on Dec. 1 and two overtime losses from being undefeated in league play. Ben Jacobson's squad has won five in a row. And I'm sure UNI would love to kill any remaining at-large ambitions for Loyola Chicago, which is coming off a road loss to Bradley. This should be a fun game for the top two teams in the MVC standings.
Hunter Dickinson fakes and breaks free from his Indiana defender, drives to the hoop and throws it down.
Borzello: Colorado State at Boise State. If you're looking for something to do before the Super Bowl, you could do a lot worse than Sunday afternoon's Mountain West showdown in Boise. The Rams were considered the preseason favorites and found themselves ranked in the top 25 earlier this season, but a two-game losing streak at the end of January put them behind Boise and Wyoming at the top of the Mountain West standings. But Isaiah Stevens and David Roddy form one of the best duos in the country and are good enough to win a game or two in March. Meanwhile, Leon Rice has Boise tied for first in the league -- with just one loss in the Broncos' last 16 games. A starting lineup featuring one freshman and four former transfers has the Broncos in position to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. Last week's Boise State loss to Wyoming created an opening in the regular-season race, and Colorado State can get back in the mix with a road win.