With Duke’s loss at N.C. State on Saturday, the Michigan Wolverines will head into Sunday’s showdown with Ohio State as the nation’s lone undefeated team.
The Buckeyes would love nothing more than to end Michigan’s impressive run.
Ohio State took two of three games against Michigan last year — the Buckeyes won in Columbus, then routed the Wolverines at the Big Ten Tournament; John Beilen’s group held serve in Ann Arbor. Of course, that Ohio State team had Jared Sullinger in a starring role.
Are this year’s Buckeyes, led by DeShuan Thomas and Aaron Craft, capable of repeating that success against Michigan?
How Michigan Can Win: Keep Ohio State to a two-man show.
Aside from Thomas and Craft, the most dangerous Ohio State weapon on offense this season has been Lenzelle Smith Jr., who is averaging 10.7 points per game (about two more than Craft). But in the Buckeyes’ last two losses — against Kansas and at Illinois — Ohio State failed to spread the wealth on offense.
Only Thomas (24 points) and Craft (11) hit double figures against Illinois, while only Thomas (16) and Smith (15) pulled the trick against the Illini.
Michigan can live with that. Teams playing Ohio State more or less have to accept that Thomas will find a way to score. He has a potent all-around game that makes him almost immune to being shut down, especially at home.
The Wolverines also won’t mind much if either Craft or Smith has a
decent day. The problems will come if Michigan allows both those guys, plus someone like Shannon Scott or Amir Williams, to fill it up as well. If that happens, Ohio State will be able to push Michigan's stingy defense to its limits, something very few teams have been able to do this season.
If the Wolverines limit Ohio State's role players, however, Thomas will have a hard time keeping pace with Michigan's offense.
How Ohio State Can Win: Force Trey Burke into another poor day.
Burke had a couple of rough days in those two losses to the Buckeyes last season. With the aggressive Aaron Craft (a player who, for whatever reason, has become immune to picking up fouls) in his grill, Burke turned it over five times in Columbus, then committed eight turnovers in the 77-55 conference tournament setback.
The Columbus native no doubt feels a little more pressure against the Buckeyes -- he admitted to making these games personal last year -- but he must reel it in and play to his capabilities Sunday, if the Wolverines are to steal one on the road.
However, Craft and the Buckeyes will do what they can to limit the Wolverines' point guard. Expect Ohio State to hedge out on the pick-and-rolls Michigan loves to run, in an attempt to limit Burke's ability to drive.
The Buckeyes will live with Michigan's big men trying to score. They do not want Burke penetrating the lane.
The X-Factor: Playing on the road.
Michigan has three neutral-site wins this season (Pitt, Kansas State, West Virginia), but this will be just its third true road game. In their first two, the Wolverines held off a Bradley upset attempt, then smoked a banged-up Northwestern team.
It goes without saying that Sunday's game will be Michigan's toughest away trip yet.
The Wolverines nearly bumbled away the game against Bradley, failing to take care of the ball late. Given the same opportunity with a lead on Sunday, will they be able to finish the job? And if the Buckeyes come out hot, can Michigan weather the storm, knowing that the No. 1 ranking is within its grasp?
Prediction: Put this matchup at Crisler, and Michigan would be a comfortable favorite. It's hard to anticipate a blowout, in either direction, with this game in Columbus.
Craft has to feel confident against Burke, Thomas will find his way to 20 or so points, and the Buckeyes' big men could give Michigan some trouble on the glass.
Is all that enough to secure the upset? If Michigan plays as it did Wednesday vs. Nebraska, without question -- the Wolverines were sluggish throughout and struggled to shoot the ball. The Maize and Blue should deliver a much better performance, though.
Even on the road, in a hostile environment, the Wolverines' more talented roster will sneak out a W.
Michigan 74, Ohio State 72