For the first time in six games, Ohio State is preparing for its next opponent with a win after defeating Nebraska 70-60 on the road behind a career-best performance from freshman guard Luther Muhammad.
But the Cornhuskers were losers of four of their past six. Michigan, the Buckeyes’ next opponent, has three fewer losses throughout the entirety of the season, and comes in as the No. 3 scoring defense in the country, allowing 56.5 points per game.
For Muhammad and redshirt senior guard Keyshawn Woods, both of whom are not from Ohio, the rivalry between Ohio State and the Wolverines is new.
Woods, a Gastonia, North Carolina, native, said it took seeing the football team defeat Michigan 62-39 on the football field to really let the rivalry sink in.
“Being at that football game, you really understand,” Woods said. “You really understand that Ohio State and Michigan don’t like each other, and you know how serious it is for both ends, so this game is serious for us to get this win.”
Ohio State (13-6, 3-5 Big Ten)
G — C.J. Jackson — Senior, 12.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.7 apg
G — Musa Jallow — Sophomore, 3.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 0.3 apg
G — Luther Muhammad — Freshman, 9.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.1 apg
F — Andre Wesson — Junior, 8.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.6 apg
F — Kaleb Wesson — Sophomore, 14.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.6 apg
No. 5 Michigan (19-1, 8-1 Big Ten)
G — Zavier Simpson — Junior, 8.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.6 apg
G — Charles Matthews — Senior, 13.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.2 apg
G — Jordan Poole — Sophomore, 12.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.2 apg
F — Ignas Brazdeikis— Freshman, 15.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.1 apg
C — Jon Teske — Junior, 9.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 0.9 apg
The Wolverines hold teams to the third-fewest points per game in the nation, and do so by forcing opponents to shoot 39.4 percent from the field and 29.7 percent from 3, No. 20 and No. 26 in the NCAA, respectively.
Head coach Chris Holtmann said the defensive success comes from the talent Michigan holds in its starting five.
“Great individual defenders, they’ve got a great system, but any elite defensive team, you’re gonna look and you’re gonna find great individual, versatile defenders,” Holtmann said.
Holtmann complimented junior guard Zavier Simpson, calling him “as good of an on-ball defender as I can remember seeing in college basketball.”
In Michigan’s most recent game against Indiana, the Wolverines trusted senior guard Charles Matthews to cover Indiana freshman guard Romeo Langford, the Hoosier’s leading scorer. In Michigan’s 23-point victory, Langford scored nine points on 3-of-12 shooting, and was a minus-24 for the game.
Wolverines head coach John Beilein mainly avoids using depth, with the top seven in the rotation each clocking more than 300 minutes. The lowest eight players in minutes do not combine for more than 250 minutes between them.
Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis leads Michigan with 15.2 points per game, and shoots 46.4 percent from the field.
Holtmann said his opponent’s success comes from the combination of added youth with the veteran presence that sent Michigan to the NCAA Tournament final a season ago, notably with the return of players like Poole, Matthews, Teske and Simpson.
“They’ve got great versatility,” Holtmann said. “Those four guys won a lot, played in a lot of games that have been very important, and then you add some depth, and obviously a freshman in Brazdeikis, who can create some real matchup issues, so obviously a great challenge.”
Michigan comes in winners of 33 of its past 35 games dating back to the past season, and Ohio State comes in winners of one of its past six.
The Wolverines haven’t lost a game at home in more than a year, losing to then-No. 5 Purdue 70-69 on Jan. 9, 2018.
For Muhammad, none of that matters. The rivalry, the recent games, it’s all just background to the game that’s ahead.
“I don’t really try to pay too much attention to the rivalry; it’s next game; they’re a great team, they’re a top 10 in the country right now,” Muhammad said. “We’re just focused on trying to come together and get another win.”
Ohio State takes on No. 5 Michigan on the road at 9 p.m. Tuesday.