Michigan survived a scare from Illinois on Friday afternoon to avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed in 11 years to lose its opening round game to a No. 8 or No. 9 seed. Ohio State, meanwhile, did just what it always does in the Big Ten Tournament — win games. After fending off a pesky Purdue squad in the opening round game on Thursday, Ohio State faced a much tougher matchup against a surging Nebraska team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life. The Buckeyes fell behind by 18 points in the second half, but battled back to pull off a 71-67 win.
Michigan and Ohio State squared off just once this season, a 70-60 Michigan win in Columbus on Feb. 11, but the two have a long history in the conference tournament, and it’s not good at all for the Wolverines. Ohio State has knocked Michigan out of the tournament all six times they have faced off (1999, 2002, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012). The Buckeyes were the higher seed and favored each time, so that’s the one difference from this year’s meeting.
Here are my three keys to ending that streak:
On Friday, Michigan’s offense looked stagnant for long periods at a time. Illinois’ aggressive zone defense and Jordan Morgan’s foul trouble kept Michigan out of the paint and the Wolverines settled for three-pointers. Sometimes that works — Michigan does lead the Big Ten in three-point percentage — but others it doesn’t. When taken in the normal flow of the offense or open looks, Beilein will never tell his players to stop shooting. But that’s not what the offense was for most of the second half.
In fact, the 30 three-point attempts were the most since Michigan chucked 31 against Nebraska on Feb. 5, and it was just the third time this season the Wolverines attempted 30 or more. They average 21 attempts per game.
Ohio State’s pressure defense is well known as Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are adept at harassing opposing guards and forcing turnovers. Michigan’s guards are more than capable of handling the pressure, but they’ll need to keep the offense moving and avoid digressing it into one-on-one drives and long shots late in the shot clock.
In the season’s only meeting, Michigan shot just 17 threes — and made eight of them. More importantly, both big men, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford were involved in the offense, combining for 14 points and 12 rebounds. That’s what it will take to beat the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Contain Ross and Smith
Ohio State’s offense has had trouble scoring points for most of the season, and when the teams faced off in Columbus it was virtually a two-man show. LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr. combined for 37 of the Buckeyes’ 60 points. Both have the ability to hit the three, although Ross missed all four of his attempts and Smith made 3-of-9. Michigan’s defense needs to force them to pass up the three and let others, especially Craft and Scott, shoot.
Craft is shooting just a hair over 30 percent from downtown on the season and is just two for his last 16. He’s most dangerous when he puts his head down and drives to the basket, able to finish or dish it off to a big man, so keep him outside the arc and make him shoot. Scott shoots just 27.3 percent from three and has made just 7-of-32 since Jan. 7.
Ross, meanwhile, has put Ohio State on his back late in the season, averaging 21 points per game over the last five including a season-high 26 against Nebraska on Friday. Smith has struggled as of late, having made just six of his last 21 shots from the field in the last three games and six of his last 28 three-pointers dating back to Feb. 15. Still, he has made at least three three-pointers in a game eight times this season, so he can’t be left alone.
Play like the underdog
Michigan won the first meeting on the road by 10. They ran away with the regular season conference title and are the No. 1 seed. The bulls eye is squarely on their back. But they need to play like Ohio State is favored. The Buckeyes will certainly be hungry to avenge that loss and move to the Big Ten Tournament Championship game for the sixth straight season.
Michigan must forget the history behind this matchup in the tournament and simply match Ohio State’s intensity from the opening tip. In all reality, neither team has much to play for in the grand scheme of the season — they’re both locks for high seeds in the Big Dance — but rivalry bragging rights are on the line. Play with fire out of a desire to get the season sweep of Ohio State just like they did against Michigan State.
Prediction: Michigan 72 – Ohio State 70, OT