Two teams that were sitting in the top five of the national rankings early in the season battle it out for seventh place in the Big Ten standings on Sunday when the No. 19 Michigan Wolverines visit the No. 24 Ohio State Buckeyes. These two long-time rivals were a combined 17-1 to start the season, but both teams are currently 9-8 in conference play and merely fighting for positioning for the conference tournament.
The top 10 teams in the Big Ten earn first-round byes in the conference tournament, and both the Buckeyes and Wolverines sit just 1.5 games ahead of 11th-place Purdue coming into this contest. Ohio State has won two in a row and seven of its last nine contests, while Michigan is coming off an upset loss at home to Wisconsin on Thursday.
Ohio State is a 3.5-point favorite at home in this one, with the over/under set at 137.
Injury problems have plagued the Wolverines this season, from forward Isaiah Livers playing in only 18 of the team’s first 28 games to guard Eli Brooks (11.0 points, 37 percent shooting from three-point range) possibly missing this contest with a broken nose. Brooks missed the loss to Wisconsin, though there’s a thought he could return against Ohio State, wearing a mask to protect his face.
If Brooks can’t go — and even if he can in a limited capacity — there will be more pressure on Zavier Simpson to be a scorer. Simpson did that against Wisconsin to the tune of a career-high 32 points, and he averages 13.0 points per game, but Simpson is also best as a facilitator, as he leads the Big Ten in assists with 7.9 per contest.
Livers leads the Wolverines with 13.4 points per game, while freshman guard Franz Wagner (11.2 points) has stepped up his offensive game of late, averaging 16.7 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 61.3 percent from the floor. Of course, playing against Ohio State, the biggest key for the Wolverines could be the ability of 7-footer Jon Teske to stay on the floor to defend the Buckeyes’ Kaleb Wesson.
Starting To Roll
Ohio State is starting to look like the team that was challenging for the No. 1 ranking early in the season. The Buckeyes seem to have found their groove, with Wesson leading the way. The junior forward paces Ohio State in both scoring (14.0 points) and rebounding (9.6 rebounds) and can extend his offensive game to the perimeter (39 three-pointers).
Duane Washington Jr. is a solid No. 2 scorer, averaging 11.0 points, while Andre Wesson has raised his game in Big Ten play, averaging 10.1 points against conference opponents. The Buckeyes aren’t expected to have Kyle Young available for this game due to injury after the junior forward had 12 points and five rebounds in the first meeting between these two teams this season.
The Buckeyes like to shoot from long range, ranking second in the Big Ten in three-pointers per game with 8.6. But Michigan is one of the best in the conference at defending the three, allowing opponents to hit just 31.2 percent from beyond the arc to rank third in the league.
Another Close One
These two teams went down to the wire in the earlier meeting, won by Ohio State 61-58 in early February. Expect much of the same thing in this one, with both teams starting to play better and wanting to avoid sliding down in the Big Ten standings any more. Which team will win is really anyone’s guess, but I’m taking Michigan to cover the 3.5-point spread, win or lose.