OSU Prepares For Showdown At Michigan

When you think of Ohio State-Michigan, football is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But Thursday's showdown on the hardwood is shaping up to be a crucial game in the Big Ten race. We have a preview of the game, including comments from Ohio State's Thad Matta, Jamar Butler, J.J. Sullinger and Je'Kel Foster.

There won't be kegs and eggs before the game and there won't be gold pants on the line. But Ohio State's basketball game at Michigan on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN) is big for its own reasons.

The No. 17 Buckeyes (16-3, 5-3 Big Ten) and No. 22 Wolverines (16-4, 6-3) are each vying for a conference championship. The schools are best known for their rivalry in football, but make no mistake that Thursday's game is critical for both sides.

"We're going to play a great basketball team," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "Michigan is obviously very good and is really playing well at home with only one loss to UCLA. We've got to go up and attempt to play our best basketball and be in full swing. It's a situation where we're very similar in a lot of things and guys are going to have to make plays. Should be a fun game for the players."

The Wolverines had been playing very well over the last month, until they went to Iowa last Saturday and got pounded to the tune of 94-66.

Michigan is led by 6-3 senior guard Daniel Horton who averages 16.5 points and 5.6 assists per game. Other key players for the Wolverines are 6-11 junior forward Courtney Sims (12.3 points, 6.2 rebounds) and 6-3 junior guard Dion Harris (12.1 points).

Matta is concerned that Michigan is an effective offensive team from the perimeter, as well as in the paint.

"They've got four post players 6-9 or above," he said. "Harris and Horton combine for 32 points a game, and the big guys combine for like 28. So, it's a very good basketball team. Very experienced basketball team."

Horton is the one that makes everything go for the Wolverines. Just how good has he been playing this season? Matta thinks maybe better than anyone else in the conference.

"Well, you could make the case that Horton is the MVP of the Big Ten right now," Matta said. "Looking at the statistics of where he is, he's having a tremendous year. From scoring, to shooting percentages, to steals, to free throw percentage, he's having a great year for them."

Matta expects OSU's Jamar Butler and Je'Kel Foster will take turns guarding Horton.

The Buckeyes are coming off a 67-53 home win over Minnesota last Saturday. It was a good all-around performance from Ohio State, but Matta knows that his team will have to play better in order to beat Michigan on the road.

The coach gave his keys to victory.

"Well, I think number one is that we've got to play great defense," he said. "And that starts with contesting their shooters because they're too good of shooters to give them wide open shots. Post defense has got to be good. We've got to rebound the basketball. They're very good on the offensive glass because of their size.

"Offensively, we've got to try and take care of the basketball. They're a team that forces a lot of turnovers with their pressure and denying. We've got to be very sharp in our offensive execution."

Ohio State has lost two tough games on the road this season against Indiana and Iowa. In both games, the Buckeyes were in position to win, but didn't make enough plays down the stretch.

"I think every time we go on the road, quite honestly, we want to put ourselves in a position to win the game at the end," Matta said. "Ironically, the Indiana team that we played that day, I think that team was only together for two games (due to injuries). And then Iowa, you see how good they are. It's just a matter of making a couple plays down the stretch and hopefully the longer the season goes, the more comfortable we get, the more confident we get. And we know we have to do it. I know it's going to be a crazy atmosphere in there Thursday night."

Ohio State continues to shoot 3-pointers at an incredible rate. The Buckeyes are 171 out of 418 from long range for 40.9 percent. They are 13th nationally in 3-pointers made, and No. 8 nationally in 3-point percentage.

"That's how we play and we spend an inordinate amount of time shooting the basketball in practice," Matta said. "I think that's something that we take great pride in… We've got guys that can shoot it. I don't know what it is, five or six guys over 40 percent. It really reminds me of the Butler team I coached. But there, we didn't have a post player. We took guys out for throwing the ball in the post. So, here, we've got to have that mix. We've got to get Terence (Dials) going down low, as well as continue to drive the ball. We've got to get to the foul line and create more off the dribble."

The Players' Take

Butler is averaging 8.5 points and is shooting 43.9 percent from 3-point range. He says the fact that the Buckeyes shoot so much in practice (and chart all their shots) is the reason the team shoots so well in games.

"We're shooting the ball real well right now," Butler said. "We probably get up 200, 300 shots in practice every day because we do individual skill work before practice. It really helps getting a lot of shots up."

Butler knows it's a hostile environment at UM's Crisler Arena, but he's anxious for the challenge.

"Oh yeah, I'm really looking forward to this," he said. "Playing at Michigan, it's my first trip there and this is what you come to college for: to play big games in places like that."

Butler knows a big key to victory will be containing the talented Horton.

"Yeah, me and Je'Kel are going to be on Horton a lot," Butler said. "I'm going to start on him and when I go out Je'Kel is going to be on him.

"He's putting up great numbers right now. If you compare his numbers with others in the Big Ten, he's right up there. He's right up there for player of the year and I'm really looking forward to this challenge."

Butler is leading the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio at plus-3.19. He has quickly developed into a very solid point guard.

"I just try and set my teammates up and get them open shots and they're knocking them down," Butler said. "It's something that Coach Matta has drilled into me, to have a good assist-to-turnover ratio."

Butler, who is from Lima Shawnee, was Ohio's Mr. Basketball in 2003-04 when he averaged 31.6 points and 8.3 assists per game. He came to OSU with a reputation of being a big scorer, but who knew that he would develop into one of the best defenders in the Big Ten.

"Well, in high school, I didn't really play too much defense," Butler said. "I had to score for my team to win in high school and that's what I did. But now that I'm here, Coach Matta really stresses the defense."

Butler was asked if he was surprised when the coaching staff told him that he had the skills to be one of the best on-ball defenders in the league.

"Well yeah, I was a little shocked at first," he said. "But as I watched more and more tape I saw that I could be a good defender and I've practiced at it."

Butler originally committed to Cincinnati in high school, but later changed his mind and signed with OSU. He was asked to give his thoughts on the sinking ship at UC.

"My thoughts on that situation is that I hate to see that happen," he said. "I still like Cincinnati. I don't have anything against Cincinnati. But I'm glad I made my decision to come here."

* Ohio State forward J.J. Sullinger will be at a size disadvantage against Michigan, but what else is new. The 6-5 senior is averaging 10.1 points and is second on the team in rebounding at 7.1 per game.

As a fifth year senior, Sullinger has been around the block a few times and knows that the Buckeyes will be playing in front of a hostile UM crowd.

"Oh yeah, it's definitely a tough place to play," Sullinger said. "And having that rivalry kind of adds a little bit. We're just going to try and approach it like any other game."

Rivalry? Do OSU's players view Michigan as their rival?

"I think so," Sullinger said. "People say some pretty mean things to us up there when we're playing. I don't even think I can say it. It's Ohio State-Michigan. The football rivalry is obviously bigger and we understand that, but it's Wolverines and Buckeyes."

* Foster is OSU's leading scorer at 14.6 per game. He is shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range, which is No. 2 in the country behind Robert Merritt from Samford (50 percent).

But Foster is a humble young man and doesn't want to hear about his stats. He just wants to go north and bring home a victory.

"It's a big game any time Michigan and Ohio State play in anything," Foster said. "Michigan is a great team and so are we. We just want to go up there and try to get a road win."

Foster says it's important for the Buckeyes to get an early lead and take the crowd out of the game as much as possible.

"We've been in situations like this before," he said. "Like Coach Matta says, when you're on the road you have to be eight points better than the other team to come out with the victory. In the two losses we had, we were not eight points better. We allowed their fans to become a factor in the game."

Foster also gave his thoughts on trying to contain UM's Horton.

"We will try and limit his drives," he said. "Hopefully, if he looks up and sees three defenders in his path to the basket, that will limit his drives."

Notables

* Thursday's game will mark the first time OSU and Michigan have both been ranked entering a game against each other since the 1992 Midwest Regional final at Lexington, Ky., where then-No. 15 Michigan defeated then-No. 3 OSU 75-71 in overtime.

* Ohio State leads the all-time series 83-70. Michigan leads 43-33 in Ann Arbor.

* Dials is now 21st on OSU's all-time scoring list (1,347) and No. 8 on the all-time rebounding list (757). He is averaging 14.2 points and 7.3 rebounds this season.

* Last week Michigan cracked the national top 25 for the first time in eight years. This will be the Wolverines' first home game as a ranked team since March 1998.

* Michigan's 16-4 start is its best since the 1993-94 season.

* OSU is 7-3 in its last 10 games against Michigan, although UM has won three of the last four meetings in that stretch of games.

* OSU and Michigan have met just once during the last two seasons. UM won 75-64 in 2004 in Ann Arbor. Terence Dials had 19 points and nine rebounds as OSU buried Michigan 72-46 last year at Value City Arena.

* OSU is 13-21 all-time at Crisler Arena, which opened for the 1967-68 season.

* The Buckeyes are 1-2 against ranked teams this season and 3-6 against ranked teams in two years under Matta.

* In his six-year head coaching career, Matta's teams are 12-15 against ranked competition. That includes a 2-8 record against ranked teams on the road.

* Matta's teams are a combined 34-10 playing as a ranked team, including 9-3 this season.

* OSU has lost its last four road games against ranked opponents and is 1-12 in its last 13 road games against ranked opponents since a Feb. 7, 2001, win at Iowa. The only win in that 13-game stretch was a 65-59 victory at then-No. 21 Purdue on Jan. 31, 2004.

* Matta's record as a head coach in February is 30-7.


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