Sixteen games into the season, and heading into a Big Ten gauntlet that starts on Sunday, Michigan finds itself one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the entire country. The other is Duke who already passed the test that Michigan faces on Sunday afternoon. Michigan will be looking to achieve the best start to a season in program history, but the school’s biggest rival, the Ohio State Buckeyes, stand in the way as the toughest challenge the team has faced to date. It will be a game of great interest for the rest of college basketball as we will learn just how good this Wolverine team is.
Ohio State ranked as high as fourth early in the season until the Buckeyes fell 73-68 at then-No.2 Duke. In that game, Ohio State was within two with 28 seconds remaining, despite shooting just 34 percent from the field. The Buckeyes also out-rebounded the Blue Devils 40-37, and if not for the poor shooting night may have won.
A month later, Ohio State hosted No. 9 Kansas and again fell, this time 74-66. Once again, it was cold shooting that doomed the Bucks as they hit just 9-of-36 shots in the second half.
Last week. it was then-No. 11 Illinois that beat the Buckeyes, and this one wasn’t even close. The Illini led 37-25 at halftime and opened the second half on a 13-2 run to open up a 50-27 lead that Ohio State could never come back from. Once again, cold shooting was the culprit as Ohio State shot just 33 percent for the game.
In each of those three losses, aside from poor shooting, there was a common theme: the opposing teams each got big games from a guard and a big man. For Duke, it was Rasheed Sulaimon who scored 17 points, all in the second half, to go along with Mason Plumlee’s 21-point, 17-rebound performance. For Kansas, Ben McLemore went for 22 points and six rebounds, while big man Jeff Whitney recorded 14 and 10. For Illinois, Brandon Paul score 19 points and seven rebounds, and center Nnanna Egwu scored a career high 16 points. It seems that the recipe for beating the Buckeyes is an offense that gets big production from both inside and out.
But that’s easier said than done. Ohio State is a very talented team in and of itself and is led by junior forward Deshaun Thomas. He leads the team with 20.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He’s extremely long and athletic and is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and just over 40 percent from three-point range so far. He has a season high of 31 points against Washington and a low of 14 against Northern Kentucky. He scored 16 against both Duke and Kentucky, shooting a combined 10-of-25, though he did hit 6-of-13 three-point attempts. In Big Ten play, Thomas is averaging nearly 23 points per game so far.
The only other Buckeye averaging double figures is junior guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. at 10.7. He also ranks second on the team in rebounding with 5.5 per game. His season high is 18 points against Albany, but he has been held below ten six times, including a goose egg against Washington and two points against Purdue on Tuesday. He shoots 44.8 percent overall and 43.5 percent from three-point – the team’s best three-point shooter.
Point guard Aaron Craft ranks third on the team in scoring at 8.9 points per game and ranks third in the Big Ten with 4.7 assists per game. He’s not a great shooter, averaging 39.8 percent overall and 33.3 percent from downtown, but he does have the ability to hit shots when he’s on. Against Albany in the season opener, he hit 5-of-7 threes en route to a season high 20 points. In the three losses, he made just 4-of-13. He’s more of a set-up man that has the ability to finish around the rim, but he’s best known for his relentless defense. He tends to get away with a lot of hand checking, so the way the officials call the game could very well determine how Michigan’s day goes offensively. In last year’s three meetings, he largely held his own with Trey Burke, but Burke’s progression this season has made him nearly unstoppable. It will be a great matchup to watch.
Sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross averages 8.7 points off the bench, but most of his production has been against the weaker teams on the schedule. He scored nine against Duke, four against Kansas, and two against Illinois while averaging just under 12 minutes per game.
Sam Thompson averages 7.1 points per game, although in the last six games he’s averaging just five points. The 6’7″ sophomore from Chicago is a decent shooter (44.3 percent), but not a good three-point shooter, having hit just 6-of-25 attempts this season.
Senior forward Evan Ravenel has been the fifth starter most of the season and averages 6.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He’s coming off his best performance of the season, a 6-of-8 shooting night against Purdue.
Amir Williams started the four games that Ravenel didn’t and has a season-high of eight points against Nebraska. Shannon Scott is the backup point guard who plays 21 minutes a game. He averages 6.1 points, 4.6 assists, and 2.1 steals per game and had his best game of the season against Kansas when he scored 15 points.
As a team, Ohio State ranks fifth in the Big Ten with a 46.1 shooting percentage and fourth with a 36.9 three-point percentage.
Michigan can – and should – beat the Buckeyes, but it will take a better shooting performance than the Wolverines displayed against Nebraska on Wednesday. I don’t see Michigan putting up two bad performances in a row, so the Wolverines should win a close one in Columbus.
Check back on Saturday afternoon for Sam’s quick thoughts to find out specifically what Michigan needs to do to win.