The Buckeyes (13-13, 5-8), fresh off road wins at Indiana and Minnesota, can stick their heads over .500 on the year and improve their chances of an NIT bid with a win.
But the stakes are probably much more important for the Wolverines (15-9, 6-7), who desperately need every victory they can get to improve their chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. Plus, UM can greatly improve its seed for the Big Ten tournament as well.
It has been an up-and-down year for coach Tommy Amaker's team, which has dropped four of its last seven games to find itself squarely on the NCAA bubble. But wins like last Saturday's 71-59 pasting of then-Big Ten front runner Wisconsin in Crisler Arena give UM a bit of hope.
Michigan sits at 53 in RPI with this game and road trips to Indiana and Northwestern left.
Another dynamic surrounding this game is the fact this will be the teams' only meeting this season.
"We're winding this thing down now and this is our first game against them, so it is a little bit different," admitted OSU coach Jim O'Brien.
But OSU can paint a different picture of its season by parlaying its last two wins -- a 59-56 triumph at Indiana and a 70-59 win at Minnesota -- into another victory at Crisler.
"I think it is a good thing, but we have to understand again who we've beaten," O‘Brien said. "And that's not to take anything away from anybody. Minnesota has been struggling all year -- they've only won one (Big Ten) game at home. Indiana has been struggling the last few weeks. Don't misunderstand -- those are two really big wins, especially away from home.
"But we can't think this is bigger than it might be. I think a really good test will be tomorrow. If we're able to win this game tomorrow, then I think we can say we've come a good distance. Our guys certainly feel better about themselves and about our team than we have, perhaps, all season long."
After all, OSU is a distant 138th in RPI. Even with wins over Michigan and home triumphs over Penn State and Illinois, the Buckeyes would still be a long shot to make the Big Dance. O‘Brien would first like his team to get above .500, then they‘ll go from there, he said.
"That would be nice, as opposed to if we lose we would be under the .500 mark," O‘Brien said. "But I just think a win gives us more impetus toward playing well as the season winds down. We would make some headway in the conference standings and that would be good, too."
Center Velimir Radinovic added, "If we have any postseason aspirations, this game has some major implications. We know we need to get on a roll going into the Big Ten tournament."
O'Brien credited Radinovic, OSU's senior captain, for stepping forward and blasting his teammates in the locker room following the team's lackluster 78-67 home loss to Iowa Feb. 18. OSU hasn't lost since.
"That might have done something," Radinovic said. "I don't know if that lit a fire under anyone's butt or what."
When Minnesota took away Radinovic, last week's Big Ten player of the week, and power forward Terence Dials, OSU's guards came through. Tony Stockman had 21 points and four steals, while J.J. Sullinger added 15 points and Brandon Fuss-Cheatham scored 12 for the Buckeyes.
"They took away the bigs," O‘Brien said of Minnesota. "They clearly went in with a mind-set of not letting those guys have their way, as they did against Indiana. We practice Plan B every day -- this is where the guards will be if they double (the big man). Then we have to make some shots. At Minnesota, we made seven threes and we hit 50 percent behind the arc.
"One play in particular stands out. We put the ball into Terence. They doubled him. He threw it right out to Fuss and he hit a jump shot. Those are the things that have to happen. If our guards can hit some shots, that will cure a lot of what ails us."
OSU fell behind early before bouncing back against the cold-shooting Gophers. Minnesota connected on just 29.2 percent of its shots in the pivotal second half and shot 35.7 percent for the game. The Gophers went 3-for-25 from 3-point range and committed 14 turnovers. Minnesota freshman Kris Humphries, the Big Ten's leading scorer and rebounder, was just 1-for-10 from the field in the first half. He finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Gophers.
Minnesota led by as much as 12 midway through the first half, but the Buckeyes came back to cut the lead to 30-29 at halftime on Stockman's steal and basket in the final 10 seconds. Ohio State took its first lead on its first possession of the second half when Fuss-Cheatham converted on a driving layup and the Buckeyes cruised from there.
But it is clear that OSU will be stepping up in class by playing Michigan, which dropped a 72-69 heartbreaker to Big Ten-leading Michigan State Tuesday night.
In that game, Michigan led 34-26 at the half and by as many as 12 points in the final 20 minutes but could not hold on. The Wolverines were led by freshman center Courtney Sims with 19 points. Senior Bernard Robinson, Jr., added 15 points, six assists and four steals in the loss.
Sophomore Lester Abram, a 6-6 guard, and Robinson, a 6-6 forward who will be making his final appearance at Crisler, each lead the Wolverines with 12.8 points per game. Sophomore Daniel Horton, a 6-3 guard, is a close third with 11.4 ppg. Robinson, Jr., is the team's leading rebounder at 5.9 rpg. He also is the top assist man for Michigan with 91.
"We have to deal with their pressure," O‘Brien said. "They're going to get up into you and dog us. That's going to be a little bit different. They are very athletic. They're rangy. They have long arms. They are good around the basket and can block some shots. They have the ability to score some points. They have some guys who can play.
"I think we match up well with them inside. I think they are going to be bigger than us on the perimeter, especially if they play with Horton, Robinson and Lester Abrams. Us guarding them is going to be difficult. They're going to be quicker at a lot of positions."
O'Brien Denies St. John's Report
Earlier this week, the New York Post linked O'Brien as a possible candidate for the head coaching job at St. John's.
But, other than being a New York City native, O'Brien did not have any clue why his name was linked to that job.
"According to the article, I was just an afterthought," he said. "Nobody has called me and I have not had any conversations with anybody. I am happy to be coaching here at Ohio State. This university has been great to me. We just want to win our next game."
* Ohio State had won seven straight games against Michigan -- including two straight in Ann Arbor -- between 1999-2002 before being swept by the Wolverines last year (61-50 in Columbus and 70-54 in Ann Arbor).
Included in that seven-game winning streak against UM was OSU's 84-75 triumph in Ann Arbor on March 2, 2002, that helped the Buckeyes clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season championship.
Radinovic knows duplicating a win like that will not be easier.
"It is always tough to play there at Michigan," he said. "It will be their last home game. Their fans will be rowdy and we know they will be ready to play. They'll be up in our stuff right now."
* Radinovic is No. 1 in the Big Ten in field goal shooting percentage, knocking down 65.3 percent of his shots (96-147). He has made 57 percent of his shots for his career (252-444) in 107 games. He has made 54-of-84 (.643) shots in Big Ten play this season.
* Stockman leads Ohio State with an average of 13.0 points a game. He has connected on 84 percent of his foul shots (38-45). With a total of 53 steals, Stockman is among Big Ten leaders (3rd) with an average of 2.12 thefts a game. Radinovic is the team's second leading scorer with an average of 10.4 ppg. Stockman leads Ohio State vs. Big Ten competition with 11.8 ppg. Radinovic is a close second at 11.6 ppg. Dials is third with 11.4 ppg.
* Amaker is coaching his seventh collegiate season and third at Michigan. The Duke graduate came to Michigan from Seton Hall. Overall, Amaker's career record is 111-95. His total at Michigan is 43-40.
* As noted, Michigan -- due mainly to ongoing NCAA probation -- has not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1998. Would you believe that great tradition laden program hasn't reached the Sweet 16 since 1994?
* Ohio State is 3-4 in games played on the rare date of Feb. 29. The Buckeyes lost the first four games played on the extra leap year day dating back to 1908. Ohio State has won its last three, last playing in 1992, a 78-65 win at Michigan State. Previous Feb. 29 results:
2/29/08 L @Oberlin 24-26
2/29/32 L Northwestern 19-26
2/29/36 L Illinois 29-30
2/29/60 L @Indiana 83(2)-99(20)
2/29/64 W Indiana 73-69
2/29/72 W Illinois 103(14)-70
2/29/92 W @Michigan St. 78(8)-65(12)
* O'Brien told reporters Saturday that two of OSU's walking wounded are making progress. Guard Nick Dials (sprained wrist) and forward Matt Sylvester (foot) have not played in several weeks.
"It will probably be longer for Matt," O‘Brien said. "Nick, I think, is going to try and practice Monday. He did not practice (Saturday), but I think his wrist is feeling better. He's been doing some shooting."
* A win would give OSU three straight wins for the third time this year and first time in conference play.
OSU also had three-game winning streaks over Virginia Tech, Samford and Furman and another one over Eastern Illinois, Dartmouth and Maryland-Baltimore County in December.
* Click the link below for a look at the TV clearances and early line for OSU-Michigan.