Cody Cousino / Asst. multimedia editor
When the No. 1-ranked Ohio State men’s basketball team (22-0, 9-0) last played Michigan (13-9, 3-6) on Jan. 12, the Wolverines hosted the Buckeyes for what was, perhaps, a closer-than-expected four-point win. On that night, OSU nearly squandered a 12-point second-half lead, clinching the game, 68-64.
Tonight, the Wolverines are scheduled to be in Columbus for a rematch against the Buckeyes, the only undefeated team in the country.
Too close for comfort
Before OSU coach Thad Matta’s team began Big Ten play, the Buckeyes had yet to play what many would consider a “close” game. Since the beginning of conference play, OSU has won six games by five points or fewer, including its win at Michigan.
“I remember when we started conference play that all you guys said that, ‘Oh, you haven’t had a close game,’ so it’s our obligation to keep them close so you guys can get the balance asked for,” Matta joked with reporters Wednesday. “I don’t think I’ve seen panic from our guys. I don’t think I’ve seen fear in situations, so hopefully it’s making us a better basketball team.”
Probably the most nerve-racking game for Buckeye fans was the team’s most recent: a one-point win at Northwestern (13-8, 3-7) on Saturday. Against the unranked Wildcats, OSU’s unblemished record was in jeopardy, until a Northwestern prayer at the buzzer went unanswered and the Buckeyes held on for the 58-57 victory.
Matta said the close call at Northwestern, the game at Michigan and others like it are a product of playing in a competitive conference.
“In the seven years I’ve been in the Big Ten, I know for sure in the last three,” Matta said, “that if we’ve played 48 games, 44 of them have come down to the last four minutes of the game.”
Defending the perimeter
Of the 46 shots the Wolverines took in their first meeting with the Buckeyes, more than half came from beyond the 3-point line. Led by junior guard Zack Novak and freshman forward Evan Smotrycz, who made four each, Michigan made 11 of its 24 3-point attempts that game.
Senior forward David Lighty, who said he has always prided himself on his defensive abilities, said guarding the 3-point shot is a must tonight.
“Everyone’s a shooter,” he said. “Everyone’s a threat, and that’s something that we have to be aware of.”
Specifically, Lighty said, the Buckeyes will need to focus on sophomore guard Darius Morris. Even though Morris missed all three of his 3-point attempts in the last meeting, he led the Wolverines with 18 points. Despite Morris’ tendency to rack up points, Lighty said, the Buckeyes’ biggest concern is his ability to distribute the ball.
“With Morris coming off ball screens and finding people, it’s deadly,” Lighty said. “We have to disrupt him as much as possible, try and get the ball out of his hands, and we have to make them do things that they’re not comfortable doing.”
Sullinger’s chance at redemption
In the teams’ previous meeting, the Wolverines arguably did the best any team had done all year at defending freshman forward Jared Sullinger. His 12 points and seven rebounds were certainly not great by his standards, but it was the six turnovers that had Sullinger looking frustrated all game.
“They were extremely physical,” Matta said of the Wolverine defense on Sullinger. “They were bringing, at times, damn near five guys to guard him.”
However, the freshman has turned the ball over just three times in the Buckeyes’ five games since and not once in the team’s last three. Matta said he expects Sullinger to be ready for the Wolverine defense tonight.
“Jared has watched a ton of tape,” he said. “I think he has a pretty good feel of what we want to do.”
OSU and Michigan are scheduled to tipoff at 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.