The Ohio State basketball team’s roller coaster of a season has taken a turn for the better with a date against archrival Michigan on Tuesday looming.
The Buckeyes are in the midst of a three-game winning streak after victories at Wisconsin, at Iowa and over Purdue. However, it was just a mere two weeks ago that it appeared as if Thad Matta’s squad was heading straight to the bubble with five losses in six games, including two inexplicable defeats against Penn State and Nebraska.
Matta’s decision to insert Sam Thompson into the starting lineup has proven to be genius in the short term.
While Thompson has helped the starting lineup by hitting all four of his three-point attempts in the last two games and providing solid defense, the primary reason the rotation shift has been so beneficial is Shannon Scott’s effectiveness off the bench.
Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors breaks down Scott’s recent play:
Shannon Scott in three game off the bench: 29 points, 50 percent FG percentage, seven rebounds, nine assists, five steals.— Kyle Rowland (@KyleRowland) February 9, 2014
The statistical production has been welcomed in the past three contests, but the spark that Scott generates off the bench has been even more impressive. He plays lockdown defense and completely changes the tempo of the game just as the opponent is getting settled into the early flow of the proceedings.
So with Scott off the bench and Thompson starting, how do the new-look Buckeyes stack up against Michigan heading into the Big Ten showdown?
Record-wise, Ohio State is 19-5 overall and 6-5 in the conference while Michigan is 17-6 and 9-2 in the conference. However, the Wolverines' record in the league could look much different after the treacherous four-game stretch they are currently navigating.
Michigan lost at Iowa on Saturday, will head to Columbus Tuesday and then return home for dates with Wisconsin and Michigan State. It is the make-or-break portion of the regular season, and losing by 18 to the Hawkeyes was not the ideal way to start.
In a brutal stretch like Michigan is facing, having depth and healthy bodies is important. This is one advantage Ohio State has with preseason All-American Mitch McGary potentially out for the season with back issues.
Yes, the Wolverines have played extremely well in his absence, but logic would dictate that losing someone that talented will catch up to them at some point as the season progresses and other players accumulate bumps and bruises. Look for Amir Williams, who has played better this season than fans give him credit for, to exploit the McGary-less Wolverines down low.
Another factor working in Ohio State’s favor is the fact the game will be in Columbus.
Five of Michigan’s six losses have come away from Ann Arbor, including the last two road games at Iowa and at Indiana. The Wolverines lost by a combined 28 points against the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes and never looked comfortable in either contest.
Furthermore, Michigan’s road win at Michigan State came when the Spartans were decimated by attrition. Both Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson missed that game, which undoubtedly helped John Beilein’s squad emerge victorious.
In terms of on-court execution, Ohio State’s perimeter defenders will be critical in this matchup.
Nik Stauskas has stepped up as the go-to option in McGary’s absence and with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the NBA. Furthermore, Glenn Robinson III plays plenty of possessions on the outside, as does the underrated Caris LeVert.
The talent is there for the Michigan ball-handlers, but Iowa provided the Buckeyes with a blueprint, as Stauskas pointed out in an Associated Press recap on ESPN.com: "They made a lot of adjustments. They did things on our ball screens and handoffs, which made things difficult. They denied me the ball and when I did try to drive all their guys were in the gaps."
Stauskas and Robinson III turned the ball over a combined eight times against the Hawkeyes, and Robinson finished with a mere two points.
Iowa is loaded with talent, but Ohio State is better on the defensive side of the ball, especially on the perimeter. Look for the Buckeyes to bother Stauskas with their length, lateral quickness and ability to dart into passing lanes.
It is with that defense that Ohio State has its largest advantage over Michigan.
The Buckeyes ranked No. 4 in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive efficiency ratings as of Feb. 8, while Michigan was No. 75. Aaron Craft (who is arguably the best defender in the entire country), Scott, Thompson, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and even Williams as a shot-blocker are about as good as it gets from a defensive standpoint.
While Ohio State certainly holds the advantage on defense, the Wolverines are significantly better on offense if the numbers are to be believed.
Michigan was ranked No. 3 nationally in Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted offensive efficiency ratings as of Feb. 8, while the Buckeyes checked in at No. 94.
The offensive struggles were the main culprit during Ohio State’s slump, but there have been signs of progress recently, including Smith’s four three-pointers against Purdue, Thompson’s newfound stroke from downtown as a starter and Craft demonstrating his ability to put the team on his back when it absolutely needed it in the final moments at Wisconsin and at Iowa.
While Michigan’s offense is certainly elite, the Buckeyes’ suffocating defense will prove too much for Michigan in Columbus. The crowd will be rocking, and at some point in the second half the Buckeyes will pull away much like they did against Purdue with a game-winning run.
Prediction: Ohio State 71, Michigan 64
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