It may not be "The Game," but tonight's Michigan-Ohio State matchup in Columbus certainly isn't lacking in postseason significance. In fact, it features two teams hailed as championship contenders at various points this year trying to fight their way back into that discussion.
Despite a horrid 1-5 record in January, the Buckeyes have rallied with three straight wins, including wins at Wisconsin and Iowa, to climb back to No. 22 in the nation.
Michigan went from being unranked the week of December 9 to as high as No. 10 two weeks ago, but it has lost two of its last three to Indiana and the aforementioned Hawkeyes. The Wolverines currently are tied with Michigan State for first in the Big Ten.
Anytime Mike Tirico and Dan Dakich (whose son Andrew plays for the Wolverines) are on the call, as they are tonight, you know it's a game that matters, especially as we get closer to March. Which players will each team turn to as the race for conference supremacy heats up?
Michigan (17-6, 9-2 in the Big Ten)
If Michigan is going to snap out of its mini-funk, Nik Stauskas will need to revert back to his play from earlier this year. In his last three games, the sophomore has struggled, and by no surprise, so has the team. After averaging 18.6 points per game in Michigan's first eight conference games—all wins—Stauskas has scored just 25 points total against Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa. Going against Ohio State's Aaron Craft, Stauskas will have his hands full, and he will need to find ways to generate points if the open threes aren't there. That includes finding shots for his teammates, as he leads the roster with 3.9 assists per game.
No one is playing stronger for John Beilein's squad recently (in the non-Zak Irvin department) than Caris LeVert. After sporadic success for most of the season (four games of 20 or more points, but eight games of fewer than 10), LeVert has turned it on in a major way in the last five contests. The sophomore is averaging 16.2 points per game and 6.8 rebounds since the victory on the road over then-No. 3 Michigan State. LeVert's increased ability to play strong on the glass will be important as long as Glenn Robinson III continues to struggle.
Ohio State (19-5, 6-5 in the Big Ten)
We're not allowed to preview an Ohio State game without talking about Aaron Craft, right? Even though the senior is thought of mostly for his defensive prowess, he did tally 17 points in the Buckeyes' win at Iowa last week. Monday, Craft was named Big Ten Player of the Week after becoming the first Big Ten player since Michigan State's Charlie Bell in 2001 to register 17 points, six assists and six steals in a game. His strong defensive play has propelled the Buckeyes to surrender the ninth-lowest number of points in the nation per game. Ohio State still very much relies on Craft, and his ability to shut down the struggling Stauskas could very well be the deciding factor in this game.
On a team that isn't especially strong offensively (164th in points per game), LaQuinton Ross has been huge for the Buckeyes. For the year, the junior is averaging 14.2 points per game and 5.5 rebounds, but he's recently improved on those figures. Over the last month, spanning eight games, Ross has put up 16.5 points per contest while bringing down 9.6 boards. While Ohio State ranks just 212th in the nation in rebounds, its rivals to the north are actually worse (284th). Ross can provide second-chance opportunities that could make the difference in what promises to be a close game.
The home-court advantage could prove to be all Ohio State needs in this one, as this tweet from ESPN's College Basketball Twitter account shows.
Under Thad Matta, Ohio State has dominated its archrival, going 17-4 in the series including a perfect 9-0 at home. #MICHvsOSU— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) February 11, 2014
However, CBS Sports' Seth Davis says the losing streak Michigan is on is unlikely to continue.
Affirmative. Don't bet against Beilein after a losing streak RT @BallSoHard024: will Michigan beat Ohio State tonight?— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) February 11, 2014
Ultimately, I think this game comes down to whether or not Stauskas can break out of his funk. It is unlikely that it happens tonight going against one of the best on-ball defenders in all of college hoops in Craft. Michigan could very well get over the top if Irwin explodes from deep again, or if Glenn Robinson III comes to life. However, for the time being, these two teams appear to be heading in slightly opposite directions, and the home crowd gives the Buckeyes the lift they need. Craft controls Stauskas, and Ross has a very strong 15-point, eight-rebound performance as Thad Matta improves to 18-4 against the Wolverines.
Final Score: Ohio State 63, Michigan 57.