The Ohio State men's basketball team will host Michigan Saturday at Value City Arena at 12:17 p.m.
The two teams have gone in different directions lately. The Buckeyes (15-7, 4-4) are riding a three-game winning streak, while the Wolverines (12-10, 3-5) have lost five straight.
If Ohio State wins, it will go over .500 in conference play for the first time since the 2001-02 season when it was Big Ten regular season co-champions and Big Ten Tournament champs.
"That would be a huge step for this team to get over the .500 hump in the Big Ten," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "I think it's important for the growth of this team."
Michigan might be struggling, but it still has plenty of talent.
The Wolverines leading scorer and distributor is 6-3 junior guard Dion Harris at 12.8 points and 3.5 assists per game.
The second-leading scorer was 6-3 junior guard Dan Horton (12.4) but he has been suspended from the team indefinitely and is not expected to play against OSU.
Michigan has shuffled up its starting lineup more than any other team in the conference, so it's not clear who will start the game Saturday.
The rest of its top players include: 6-11 junior F/C Chris Hunter (11.5 ppg, 3.6 rebounds per game), 6-11 sophomore F/C Courtney Sims (9.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg), 6-8 sophomore forward Brent Petway (7.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), 6-6 freshman G/F Ron Coleman (7.3 ppg) and 6-9 junior center Graham Brown (5.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg).
Matta knows the Wolverines are more dangerous than their record indicates. He also knows they will have a considerable height advantage over the undersized Buckeyes.
"They've got size, they've got athleticism," Matta said. "Harris is a proven scorer. They use their athleticism well, especially on defense. They're a great defensive team. They're a team that rebounds the ball well. There's a lot of matchup problems that we have going into this game.
"As I think about our team, our focus – as it has from day one – is primarily on us. We go in and we prepare for Michigan and I think they're a very talented basketball team. But, we have to make sure that we're ready to play. We don't have the luxury of coming out and not be playing well. We know that if we're not ready to play then we don't have a chance to win."
Matta thinks his team is close to playing good basketball, but he wants to continue to see a decline in turnovers.
"I think that one of the biggest things is our attention to detail," he said. "We're still making some mistakes that are really costing us and if we can get those things alleviated… and I think every coach in America is saying that right now. But we can't have a mental lapse, we can't not take care of the ball and give up easy baskets. We're just not good enough to do that. And I think we've gotten better at it since the Minnesota game when we turned it over 19 times. We've done a better job of taking care of the ball and that is always going to be one of our primary focuses."
Matta was asked if he's learned to dislike Michigan yet.
"And I've said this: The Michigan-Ohio State football game, that day was the most electrifying day of my life," he said. "As far as a sporting event goes, I've never seen anything like that.
"I don't think that the rivalry is as intense (in basketball). I haven't felt that way, compared to the football game. For us, it's a conference game and it's another game on our schedule that we have to be ready to play."
Michigan has obviously not played well lately, but it could wake up at any time.
"Well, there's no doubt about it," Matta said. "I don't know (Michigan head coach Tommy) Amaker well, but I have great respect for what he has done. I know Michigan will come in here ready to play (Saturday)."
One of the problems with the Buckeyes this season has been the lack of depth behind junior center Terence Dials. Fifth-year senior Matt Marinchick has been doing what he can, but OSU is a completely different team without Dials on the floor.
Freshman forward Matt Terwilliger was the No. 2 prep player in the state of Ohio last year and was expected to come in and at least give some minutes off the bench. However, he has only played in 12 games this season and is averaging 1.8 ppg. He still needs to add a lot of muscle to his 6-8 frame, but it's a bit puzzling he hasn't received more playing time.
"Matt has been, probably the last three weeks, he has been tremendous in practice," Matta said. "Fortunately for us, Matt Marinchick has played well and I think his experience right now has kind of won over. But, as I talked to (Terwilliger) the other day, I think he's got a great future here. He really kind of understands what it takes now to play here, where maybe he didn't understand that early in the year and that set him back a little bit."
Terwilliger can play the four and five spots.
"I think, honestly, a little bit of both," Matta said.
Brayden Bell – the 6-10 OSU signee from Salt Lake City – will also be able to play both post positions next year.
"Yeah, same thing," Matta said. "A little bit of both."
One frontcourt player that has really stepped up his game for the Bucks is 6-7 junior forward Matt Sylvester. He is now averaging seven points per game and has played especially well the last two weeks.
"I think Matt has done a tremendous job for us," Matta said. "I think Matt really understands what we need, when we need it, where we need it. I think that speaks to his basketball IQ. We need him to continue to play well for us and he's done a good job with it."
Sylvester started the season slow, but he's obviously happy to be contributing to the Buckeyes' recent success.
"It's been going real well," he said. "I've just got my confidence going and we're all playing hard and we're going to try and keep it rolling Saturday."
Sylvester knows that Michigan will be a tough team to beat, even though the Wolverines have been struggling.
"They're big and they're athletic," he said. "They probably haven't had the season they wanted, but they've had some injuries and off the court stuff. But they are capable of beating anybody on any given night, so we're going to have to come out and play with great intensity.
"I look at it like they're a dangerous team. They've lost a few in a row and they're going to be looking to come in here and steal one on the road. So, I think that's going to make it even more important for us to maintain our focus."
Sylvester really started to get his game going in the Minnesota loss on Jan. 19 and has kept it going ever since. He seems to be playing with a lot of confidence.
"I think it's just kind of been building up since the beginning of the year," Sylvester said. "Just a little more confidence every game and I really feel like I have (Matta's) confidence right now and it's easier to play that way. Just kind of got it rolling, I guess."
Sylvester has not started a game this season, but he says he enjoys the sixth-man role.
"Yeah, I almost do like my role," he said. "I get to kind of sit back and soak in the first few minutes of the game and see what's going on in there. It's really not who starts, it's kind of who finishes the game. I've been in that position lately and I hope it continues."
Sylvester would like to see OSU get over the .500 mark in the Big Ten.
"Yeah, definitely, I think it would be great if we can get over .500 in the league," he said. "We're just trying to take it one game at a time, really, and get a win every time we go out there."
Freshman guard Jamar Butler has started the last two games and has played well. He is now averaging 3.3 points and 2.1 assists per game, and has played well defensively all year.
"My role on the team is to be a defensive stopper," Butler said. "I'm only a freshman this year and whatever (Matta) wants me to do, that's what I'm going to do."
Butler knows his OSU basketball history. He understands the Bucks haven't had a winning record in the league for three years and he wants that streak to end.
"It's a very big game for us, put us over .500 in the Big Ten," he said. "It's Michigan coming in here and that's our rival. It would be a big win for us. We haven't been over .500 here in a few years, so it would be a big win for us."
Butler talked more about the OSU-UM rivalry.
"I think it's the football side that gets it all started, but it's Michigan," he said. "In respect of Michigan, it's going to be a big game. A rivalry game."
Butler has been impressed with the Wolverines' athletic ability from watching them on film.
"They are very athletic," he said. "They try and get out and run. They're a very athletic team, which we have a lot of athleticism too, but they're very athletic."
With Horton out, Michigan might start 5-11 junior Dani Wohl at the point. He is averaging 0.7 points and 0.9 assists per game.
"I'd have to say, yeah, that might give us a little bit of an edge because (Horton) was the starting point guard," Butler said. "The point guard runs the team and they don't have him."
Butler is happy to be playing his best basketball of the season in February. He seems to be hitting his stride at the right time.
"I'm starting to get my offense rolling," he said. "Defense leads to offense and I'm just trying to play well on defense and get my offense going and try and build some confidence."
Probably the most interesting player on the team to interview is junior forward J.J. Sullinger. He is a walking quotebook.
Sullinger, a nearby Worthington native, grew up a diehard OSU football and basketball fan. His freshman season at Arkansas, he even took the No. 0 to remind him of home and the block O (which he still wears at OSU). Sullinger knows that OSU-UM is more of a football rivalry, but over the last couple decades a nice basketball rivalry has also been brewing.
"You know what man, honestly, Ohio State and Michigan, to me, is Ohio State and Michigan," Sullinger said. "I don't really hate Michigan, but I'm just pro-Ohio State. Anytime it's Ohio State versus Michigan in any sport, I want Ohio State to win and it's obviously no different (Saturday).
"As far as the rivalry goes, it goes a lot further in the football thing that it does basketball, and we understand that. There won't be anyone getting to campus at 5 a.m. for kegs and eggs or anything like that. But both teams are going into the game trying to win a game and it's going to be a heated battle. Within the game itself is going to be a big rivalry just to see who wants to win the game more. But as far as all the hype and stuff, it really doesn't get to us, but we want to win the game."