Ohio State-Michigan Preview
By Ben Axelrod
With two weeks remaining in the Big Ten regular season, the No. 6 Ohio State men’s basketball team (22-4, 10-3) finds itself in the enviable position of sitting atop the conference standings. The remaining road to a third consecutive Big Ten title isn’t an easy one, however, and it will continue on Saturday when the Buckeyes head to Ann Arbor for a 9 PM tip-off with No. 17 Michigan (19-7, 9-4) that will air on ESPN.
Facing the Wolverines- who OSU beat 64-49 on Jan. 22- isn’t likely to be any easier the second time around. With ESPN’s College Gameday spending the day in Ann Arbor, a shot at a tie for the Big Ten lead on the line, and a full day to prepare, expect the maize and blue faithful to be in a frenzy not seen in the city since Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, and Jalen Rose were running the show for the Wolverines.
And then there’s those guys on the court.
As indicated by its record, Michigan possesses one of the more talented teams in the conference. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is averaging a team best 14.3 points during his sophomore season for the Wolverines and Columbus-native Trey Burke is the front-runner for the Big Ten’s freshman of the year award.
The Michigan point guard is averaging 14 points and a team-high 4.8 assists per game through the first 26 contests of his college career. In the Buckeyes' and Wolverines’ first meeting , Burke scored 13 points and recorded five assists, but also turned the ball over five times while being guarded by OSU point guard Aaron Craft.
"Trey's a great player," Craft said. "You know he's going to be in attack mode all the whole game."
In addition to its superb backcourt, the Wolverines possess a pair of capable bigs in center Jordan Morgan and forward Evan Smotrycz. Although the two big men play different styles offensively with Morgan being more of a banger and Smotrycz being an outside threat, their collective presence was certainly felt defensively in Columbus a month ago when the two combined four eight fouls against OSU.
Michigan’s physical nature could lead to plenty of Buckeye trips to the free throw line- particularly for sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, who has averaged seven free throw attempts in each of his seven career games against the Wolverines. The Buckeyes’ leading scorer is aware that the hits will likely come early and often tonight.
"We just need to get that element of toughness back and keep playing hard," Sullinger said. "Five guys together. When you do that, you're pretty hard to beat."
If the Buckeyes can find that toughness- the type that was displayed by sophomore guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr. when he recorded his first career double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds against Michigan a month ago- it will certainly go a long way for an OSU team that will be playing with a share of the Big Ten lead on the line for the fourth time in the past six games.
“It is odd that it seems every game we’ve played lately, there are tremendous ramifications in terms of the outcome (of the conference race),” Matta said. “What we’ve tried to establish with this program is consistently being in the position where our games have a major impact. And I think that’s what we’ve done for a period of time here.”
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