Michigan vs. Ohio State was never supposed to be one of the games of the year thus far. In fact, it wasn’t even supposed to be a contest that everyone circled on their calendar and talked about for a week. The Wolverines and Buckeyes were picked to finish sixth and seventh in the Big Ten preseason poll. Finishing in the top half of the Big Ten means you’re a tournament team, but it definitely didn’t foreshadow a mid-February matchup between two top five teams.
Nonetheless, here we are in mid-February and that’s exactly what this game was supposed to be, and it delivered in a big way. The No. 3 Wolverines defeated the No. 4 Buckeyes in Columbus by the score of 92-87. It was back and forth the whole game with the winner still up for debate after the final media timeout. The best players on the floor showed out. Michigan freshman Hunter Dickinson finished with 22 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-14 shooting while his counterpart, EJ Liddell, turned in a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double. Duane Washington was the best player on the floor at times and he finished with a ridiculous 30-point performance against one of the best defenses in the country.
Every time two top five teams play, I want to walk away thinking one thing: these two teams really are two of the five best teams in America. That’s exactly what I got from Michigan and Ohio State. Here are a couple takeaways from an instant classic and what will end up being one of the best games of the entire season.
The offense, it was beautiful, but different.
It’s not exactly out of character for these two teams to look great offensively. Ohio State is third in the country at KenPom in offensive efficiency and the Wolverines follow closely behind at 7th. Michigan is fifth in the country in effective field goal percentage and finishes in the top 17 of both 2-point and 3-point FG percentage as a team. The Buckeyes’ explosiveness was on full display on Sunday led by Washington and Liddell. Both teams shot 53% from the field and they knocked down 22 3-pointers combined (11 for each side). The difference in the game came down to Michigan’s ability to get to the free throw line with more regularity shooting 11 more free ones and knocking down six more from the charity stripe.
The way these two teams each got to 85+ points in a regulation game was very different, however. Liddell and Washington put Ohio State on their backs offensively. Washington had one of the best, if not the best, game of his Buckeye career and Liddell, as expected, had a lot of success against Dickinson. They combined for 53 points. The only other Ohio State player to have more than six points was CJ Walker who also shot it well scoring 15 points on 66% shooting. But that was it. Justin Ahrens was nowhere to be found scoring zero points and Justin Sueing, the Buckeyes third leading scorer, had just six. Granted, part of this was just because it was obvious who needed the ball in their hands, but Ohio State’s peripheral scorers didn’t really show up in this game at all. With that being said, Liddell and Washington were virtually unstoppable.
On the other hand, Michigan had six different guys score at least nine points and all eight Wolverines that saw the floor had a field goal. Dickinson led the way, but Eli Brooks had 17 of his own highlighted by 3-of-4 from deep followed by Chaundee Brown, Isaiah LIvers and Mike Smith. Smith added 11 points and seven assists. Listen, he’s not nearly as good as Zavier Simpson was but Smith has a lot of the same qualities. He’s a phenomenal passer who very rarely makes a big mistake (7 assists, 1 turnover).With all the weapons surrounding him, he doesn’t need to score a lot and he’s a perfect player for the point guard role this year for Juwan Howard.
The Michigan offense is so balanced, it’s unbelievable. They aren’t as explosive as Gonzaga (or maybe even Ohio State), but there’s no telling who’s going to hurt you on any given night and they do a phenomenal job taking what the defense gives them.
Michigan is going to be a really tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
This is an obvious statement to make about the No. 3 team in the nation. However, if you told me Ohio State was going to shoot 53% from the field, knock down 11 threes and have two guys combine for 53 points, I would’ve leaned towards the Buckeyes. If you told me Ohio State was going to score 87 on their home floor, I would lean towards the Buckeyes. Both of those things happened and the Wolverines still left Columbus with another win.
We know about Michigan’s defense. It’s 11th in the country in efficiency (after giving up 87 points) and they’re second in the country in 2-point field goal percentage. If a game is ugly and relying on defense, the Wolverines have an advantage. But they reinforced their ability to score a lot of points when they needed to. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that this wasn’t going to be a low scoring affair and Michigan was going to have to score with Ohio State. That’s exactly what they did.
I’m a big fan of teams that can win games in a lot of different ways. Michigan is one of those teams. They can slow it down and win a game 62-58, or keep up with an offense like Ohio State on a pretty good day and score 92 to keep them at arm’s length. That’s what I want to see from teams I’m picking to go to the Final Four.
Are these teams on the same level as Gonzaga and Baylor? No, but it’s close.
Rightfully so, the narrative this season has been pretty simple surrounding the national title conversation: Gonzaga is king, Baylor is closer to them than anyone else and then there’s some space before team No. 3. Right now, I still think that’s the case to a certain extent and there probably isn’t anything realistic that can happen to completely change my mind, but these two teams are not far behind at all. It’s officially time to put these two teams in the conversation as “teams to beat” rather than everyone chasing the Bulldogs and Bears. They’ve earned that. Illinois might not be far behind, either, but I like both of these teams better than the Illini.
They both have veteran leadership. In Columbus, Washington, Sueing, Walker and Kyle Young are all upperclassmen and Liddell is a sophomore. On the Michigan side Livers, Smith, Brown and Brooks are all seniors with Franz Wagner and Dickinson the stud underclassmen. When it comes to March, I love leadership and I love experience and these teams have both in a big way.
I love coaching. Chris Holtmann has made a living taking teams further than anybody thought they would go. Whether that’s taking a Butler team picked to finish sixth in the Big East to the Sweet 16 or an Ohio State team picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten to a projected No. 1 seed, he does it annually. Juwan Howard hasn’t wasted any time showing that his effectiveness at Michigan won’t stop with the simple fact that he’s the coolest head coach that can walk into a high-level recruit’s living room. He’s already turned recruiting success into wins in a big way which is clearly not a given (just ask Penny Hardaway down in Memphis). I still haven’t found myself thinking that Howard is outclassed on the sidelines. Sure, he has good days and bad ones like every other coach but his good ones severely outweigh the bad.
If the NCAA Tournament were to start tomorrow, I would still put Gonzaga and Baylor in the National Championship game without too much thought, but I would also put these two teams in the Final Four without too much thought. They’re that good and they delivered an instant classic in a year where a lot of great games have been postponed.