You hear the words “Game of the Year” often & at the moment, that’s what this game could be. Michigan meets Illinois in the final week of the season, which could overtake that title, but for now, Chris Holtmann’s Buckeyes & Juwan Howard’s Wolverines.
Right now, Michigan is ranked third (the third one seed) while OSU is ranked 4th (the last one seed). There’s so much riding on this game, potential B1G regular season implications, seeding implications. There’s a ton at stake.
The Wolverines are so deep & versatile while being elite at both ends of the floor. The key for this team is undoubtedly Franz Wagner. The younger brother of Michigan legend Moritz Wagner, of course. The brothers are vastly different players. However, Franz can play 1-4 positions with elite playmaking ability, while Wagner was strictly a five. Franz isn’t a high-volume scorer but is the most talented scorer on the team with the inside-and-out ability, but his best value comes on the defensive end.
Then, of course, you have Hunter Dickinson, who’s all of 7’2. The DC native has a phenomenal freshman campaign using his size, finesse & physicality. The Buckeyes have nobody near the size of Dickinson that can defend him. You have E.J. Liddell, who’s 6’7 with a much larger wingspan, the likely best matchup for Dickinson in this one.
I’d expect Eli Brooks to play a rather large role in this one, likely defending Duane Washington Jr. The Wolverines senior guard is an elite defender. Look for him to be positioned tightly on Washington, one of the better shooters in the conference.
Speaking of an elite shooter, Isaiah Livers fit that billing to a T. Livers is shooting 43% from deep in his final season in Ann Arbor but seemingly has always been underrated. Livers was valuable on the final four teams of three years ago, but that was Mo Wagner’s team, along with Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman & Duncan Robinson. After that, It was Jordan Poole, Zavier Simpson & freshman Iggy Brazdeikis catching the eyes of many. Last season, Livers was more in the light but was dealing with a nagging groin injury putting him out of commission for chunks of the season. Now, this was supposed to be his team & in the locker room, it absolutely is. To the public, he’s the third name many think of when talking about this Michigan team. While Livers may be the third most valuable on the team, he’s experienced, battle-tested & brings so much to this Wolverines squad. His being the third-best shows how good this Michigan squad is.
Also, don’t sleep on what Columbia transfer Mike Smith provides for this Michigan team. A fantastic playmaker that guides the offense at times can create for himself & others.
The Buckeyes lack the defensive consistency that Michigan has, part of why I see the Wolverines being the better team entering this game. The Buckeyes have the third-best offensive efficiency in the country, with a head-scratching 66th in defensive efficiency. OSU doesn’t have any obvious weak links on defense. They noticeably have a communication issue; at times, switching on players correctly being a big problem. Part of that could be lack of athleticism being able to correct prior mistakes.
There’s no doubt that OSU doesn’t have the size nor athleticism Michigan has in it’s arsenal. Chris Holtmann will want to play smart, deliberate basketball in this one while trying to run some good offense.
I’m curious to see how much C.J. Walker plays in this kind of matchup. He’s a tremendous passer, but when you’re facing a team of Michigan’s caliber, you want your best offensive lineup on the floor, and Walker isn’t much of a scorer, putting Duane Washington at the point gives OSU their best lineup. Washington is a solid passer that is a deadeye shooter at 38% from deep this season.
Washington isn’t even close to being the best shooter on this team. That belongs to junior sharpshooter Justin Ahrens. The big lefty does one thing & that shoots the ball. Ahrens has nice ball fakes along with other ways to try to get free with the ball in his hands on the perimeter. You would be silly to give him any kind of space as he’s shooting a staggering 48% from deep this season. Part of the thing about that is that Ahrens has shot the ball 108 times this season. One hundred five are from deep. That kind of shooting is valuable.
Chris Holtmann would like big performances from the teams forwards, Justice Sueing, E.J. Liddell, Kyle Young & Zed Key. All have different roles, Sueing being more of a point forward type, a long wing that can drive, defend & pass. A very big piece of this Buckeyes roster, as he’s the best defender on the roster.
E.J. Liddell is the heart & soul of the team. The sophomore big-man is uber-talented with scoring ability from the paint to the perimeter with good defense. Liddell is mainly impressive in the mid-range game, something that’s a bit of a lost art in today’s game. The defensive matchup Michigan uses will be interesting. Livers position-wise would be the primary matchup, but would that be the best matchup? Hunter Dickinson isn’t athletic enough to stay with Liddell on the perimeter. That leads me to believe we could see a steady diet of Franz Wagner on Liddell, possibly Livers, but I think Franz is best to equip to stay with a guy like Liddell.
Keys to the game:
Ohio State wants the game in the 75+ range to feel comfortable. The defense isn’t effective enough. In-fact, in every game that OSU’s lost this season, they haven’t even reached 70. They’ll have to score.
The Wolverines’ three-point defense will be paramount in this game. Don’t let Justin Ahrens & Duane Washington let it fly on you.
Players to watch:
Michigan: Isaiah Livers
Ohio State: Duane Washington Jr
Ohio State: 69