In size, scale, accolades and accomplishments, the athletic programs at Ohio State and Michigan are near reflections of each other cast in the murky waters of Lake Erie.
For their men’s basketball programs this season, though, the image has never been more mirror-like, as both teams cruised on smooth nonconference waters before crashing among the Big Ten rapids.
When Ohio State (14-7, 4-6 Big Ten) takes on Michigan (13-8, 4-6) in Ann Arbor Tuesday, both will have a wind in their respective sails that they’ve lacked for more than a month, but the outcome may prove which team has truly weathered the storm.
“They’re just like us. They had some adversity hit, but it’s the Big Ten. You never know what could happen,” Ohio State redshirt junior guard CJ Walker said. “It’s a really big game, and it’s gonna be really competitive.”
In the not-so-distant past, stringing together two straight wins seemed not only an expectation, but a foregone conclusion for Ohio State and Michigan, which hit respective peaks of No. 2 and No. 4 in December before succumbing to abysmal January slumps.
The Buckeyes dropped six of seven games after wins against three top 10 teams in the months prior. The Wolverines lost five of six after ascending the rankings off the strength of wins against then-No. 6 North Carolina and then-No. 8 Gonzaga.
Michigan and Ohio State went five and six weeks, respectively, between multi-game win streaks, but both have now won two in a row heading into Tuesday –– and Michigan’s Saturday win against then-No. 25 Rutgers was its first ranked victory since November.
In a season of ups and downs, one constant for the Wolverines has been the play of senior guard Zavier Simpson, who averages nearly two more assists per game than any other player in the Big Ten at 8.4 per game.
Though Michigan and first year head coach Juwan Howard stumbled throughout January, Simpson stepped up his game, scoring 15 points per contest in the past seven games. He averaged 11.2 in the 13 games prior.
“I think his greatest attribute is his brain. It’s phenomenal,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said. “His ability to read and process information like a quarterback and read things so quickly is really phenomenal.”
With Ohio State freshman guard D.J. Carton taking a temporary step away from the program, Simpson will likely spend most of the game matched up with Walker, who played a game-high 35 minutes and scored 14 against Indiana.
Walker is no stranger to guarding Simpson, though. Walker said the pair began playing with each other in about third grade –– Simpson for “Team Lima” in western Ohio and Walker for his AAU team in Indianapolis.
The pair still exchange friendly banter on social media, Walker said, but come Tuesday, the Wolverine guard will look to lose his old friend on a litany of ball screens –– which Holtmann called “a big part of what they do.”
“He can just make a lot of passes that you don’t think are there. He just executes their offense really well, and then they have shooters on the perimeter as well,” Walker said. “They have a really good big in [Jon] Teske who can finish around the rim. He can also shoot, catch and shoot. That’s what makes their team pretty difficult to guard, which I think I can do.”
Teske, a 7-foot-1 senior center, has been the benefactor of Michigan’s screen-and-attack more often than not, as the Medina, Ohio, native leads the team with 13.6 points per game on 53 percent shooting.
He’s one of five Wolverines averaging double-digit scoring –– four of whom are upperclassmen –– for a team that scores the fourth-most points in the conference despite sitting near the bottom of the standings.
On the other side, Carton’s absence isn’t the only issue plaguing the Buckeyes. Holtmann said sophomore guard Luther Muhammad threw out his shoulder this past Thursday and the team is managing junior forward Kyle Young’s workload because of the leg injury he suffered a season ago.
Both teams have taken their lumps in the Big Ten, but Holtmann said he doesn’t necessarily think the recent rash of losses on either side is indicative of the teams’ quality.
“When you’re in a league this deep and this good, it’s going to happen,” he said.
It’s going to happen again for one team Tuesday, as Ohio State and Michigan tip off at 7 p.m. in Ann Arbor.