A little more than three weeks ago, Ohio State quashed Michigan’s hopes of an unprecedented undefeated season on their home floor in Columbus. Tonight (9pm on ESPN), the Wolverines have their chance at revenge against their hated rivals. In the five games since these two teams battled in mid-January, both teams have dropped just one game – Ohio State on the road against Michigan State the game after beating Michigan and Michigan on the road against Indiana in its last game.
As the season goes on, each game seems to matter more and more for the conference crown, and tonight’s matchup will be no different. The sold-out Crisler Center should be rocking in Maize Out form to help cheer on the hometown Wolverines against the Buckeyes. Here are three keys for Michigan to even up the season series:
1. Help Trey Burke: Michigan has the offensive firepower to beat any team in the country on any floor. Yes, Indiana was able to out-gun the Wolverines in Bloomington on Saturday, but no one would deny the fact that the Maize and Blue had a realistic shot of taking the game, and if they had played to the level they are capable of, could have won it outright.
The problem for Beilein’s squad was a lack of production from two key cogs on offense – freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. Stauskas reached double digits against the Hoosiers but took 10 shots and three free throws to get there. He also struggled mightily in the loss to Ohio State, putting zero points on the board for still the only time in his career. Robinson III had been the steady yet quiet scorer for Michigan all season until he nearly went silent on Saturday, when he made just one of his six shots in 40 minutes.
Even if Burke is his usual self, he’s going to need some help on both sides of the ball to avenge the first loss of the season. Unfortunately for Michigan, the chances Burke is his usual self are probably slim. Aaron Craft, Ohio State’s premier lockdown defender, has been remarkable against Michigan’s All-American in their four head-to-head matchups over the past two seasons, holding Trey to 12.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and five turnovers per game while forcing him into 32.6 percent field goal shooting, including a 26.3 percent mark from downtown. Certainly by this time one might hope that Burke has figured out Craft’s defensive play to some extent, but Tim Hardaway, Jr., Stauskas, Robinson III, and company better be ready to play.
2. Stop Deshaun Thomas: Michigan could play Ohio State 30 times in one season and this would be a key every single time. Deshaun Thomas is without question the offensive leader for the Buckeyes, pouring in 20 points per game, nearly double that of Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Ohio State’s second leading scorer, and he leads the team in rebounding as well with 6.2 a night. Thomas has scored 15 or more points in all but two of Ohio State’s games so far, and in both of those, he still managed double digits. His lowest output of the year, an 11-point showing at Penn State, came against the lowliest team in the Big Ten, which was never going to provide a challenge.
Perhaps the scariest part of his game, however, is his ability to score from anywhere on the court. The junior can step out and hit the three-ball (40%), he regularly takes advantage of mismatches and scores in the paint (50.7% from inside the arc), and loves the mid-range jumper. He also makes 81.6 percent of his free throw attempts. Despite all this information, many think that the way to beat Ohio State is to let Thomas score his points and make the rest of the Buckeyes win the game, pointing most notably to Ohio State’s two Big Ten losses so far in which Thomas has averaged 26 points (scoring nearly half the team’s points himself) while his teammates have struggled to get it done themselves.
If I were Beilein, though, I’d still make priorities one, two, and three on defense stopping the dynamic scorer. Force him to work hard for his shots and you have accomplished two things – making it hard on Thomas while at the same time forcing his teammates to beat you. If Michigan can limit Thomas to five fewer points than the previous time they played (when he scored 20), they should have a very good chance of getting it done.
Good news for Michigan: two of Thomas’s three worst shooting nights on the season have come in the past three games, when he has shot just 41.7 percent from the floor. He has also failed to make a three-pointer in Ohio State’s last two outings, only the second and third times he has done that this year.
3. Feed off the Crowd: Ohio State’s secret to beating Michigan at home was no secret at all. They simply rode the energy provided by the home crowd to a huge first half lead and were able to save up enough gas to stymie the Wolverines’ late comeback attempt. Tonight, the Maize and Blue would be wise to reverse the tables with the home crowd in their court. The Wolverines are wearing special maize jerseys along with maize shoes and socks to match the crowd’s Maize Out efforts. The advantage of playing at home simply cannot be over-stated, and in a rivalry game like this, Michigan needs the crowd to provide the extra boost it sometimes takes. A little noise can go a long way toward creating some turnovers, which will lead to Michigan’s hyper-efficient fast-break, while also influencing the refs’ calls when they could go either way.
Most of all, however, the Wolverines need to play their game and control the pace. If Beilein thinks turning up the pace would help, that’s exactly what the Wolverines need to do. When the break isn’t there, Burke needs to pull the ball back and let his teammates help out.
Prediction: If Trey Burke’s woes continue against Aaron Craft and company, Michigan could be in for a long, grueling battle, but if the team as a whole comes together and no one struggles mightily, the Maize and Blue should be able to even up the score in the season series against their archrivals. With the home court advantage and a brutal stretch ahead, I think Michigan will have the focus and energy needed to run out to a nice lead and hold on throughout. Burke shakes Craft a few times while Nik Stauskas has a huge night to propel Michigan to a 69-58 win.