While Rich Rodriguez patiently awaits his first shot at Ohio State, John Beilein capitalized on his first shot at the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor and second overall.
Michigan (8-17, 4-9 Big Ten) won its third consecutive game, beating Ohio State 80-70 Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor. It was a bubble-blowing defeat for Ohio State (17-9, 8-5 Big Ten) who is now in dangerous territory for NCAA Tournament hopes.
Just 12 days ago, Michigan led Ohio State for nearly 35 minutes before capsizing in the final laps in Columbus. But since then, Michigan has dug deep for victories against Iowa and Penn State. Sunday, Ohio State was trying to avoid being upset by a sub-100 team in the RPI – a blow to the postseason resume the Buckeyes couldn’t afford.
But this time, it was Michigan that looked like a postseason-hungry team anxious for a win.
Though the Wolverines will not be playing in March beyond the Big Ten Tournament – that is of course unless they do the unthinkable and win it, they’re putting together some nice building blocks for next season. Behind freshman Manny Harris and senior walk-on David Merritt, Michigan made all the plays down the stretch, outscoring Ohio State 11-4 over the final five minutes.
Michigan played inspired, quality basketball. For the first time all season, the young Wolverines are buying into their new head coach’s philosophy. Ohio State dared Michigan’s bigger wings to shoot from outside, and the game of roulette backfired on the Buckeyes. When pressing Michigan’s guards, Harris and Merritt specifically, they simply beat Ohio State by penetrating.
It was a can’t-win scenario for Ohio State. Trying to apply three quarters-court pressure after made baskets, the Buckeyes were unable to discomfort Michigan’s guards or force sloppy turnovers. Instead, it was the Buckeyes making sloppy and often lazy passes, while Michigan easily broke pressure and often found open 3-pointers in transition.
Merritt, who averages 1.3 points per game, scored 7 points in the first half – a career high. In the second half, he failed to score before sitting the last six minutes with a knee injury, but continued to come up with loose balls, played hard-nosed defense and had several hustle plays that inspired the Michigan crowd.
Though Ohio State got good production out of their freshmen trio Evan Turner (16 points and 11 rebounds), Kosta Koufos (18 points and 12 rebounds) and Jon Diebler (10 points and five rebounds), the Buckeyes went cold when it mattered most. Michigan, on the other hand, missed very few free throws down the stretch to ice the game, and when they did miss, recovered the offensive rebound on more than a few occasions.
When Michigan Had the Ball
*Though Ohio State is credited with a strong defense, given their rank of No. 6 nationally in field goal percentage defense, it’s sometimes a “double-dog dare” type of defense. Opponents of Ohio State have one of the highest percentages of 3-point shots taken to their overall field goal attempts, meaning teams will naturally shoot a little bit lower percentages than opponents of other teams. Sunday, the Buckeye defenders refused to step out beyond the 3-point line to guard shots, and often ducked under high screens, daring Michigan to shoot. Guess what? They did (10-of-24 3-point).
*What’s more bizarre about the refusal to extend the zone is that the guys making some of those shots for Michigan were not threats to penetrate. Deshawn Sims and Anthony Wright – a pair of 235-point forwards, combine for 32 percent from 3-point range this season, but are even less inclined to dribble. Yet, the Buckeyes barely lunged at them when shooting (5-of-11 combined) and rarely challenged their shots.
*As mentioned earlier, the full-court pressure had little effect on the Michigan guards. Hoping to create an up-tempo style, cause a few turnovers or get the inexperienced backcourt to make mistakes, the Buckeyes had little success with the pressure. In fact, it can be argued that it often backfired. Many shots by Michigan were made in these transition scenarios where Ohio State was slow to rotate or lazy to get back and recover.
*Merritt, a 5-10 senior from West Bloomfield, Mich. was the hero of all heroes this afternoon. His 7 points helped enter the locker room in a 38-38 tie and his passing, sideline saves and defensive pressure lit a fire in the Ann Arbor crowd and his teammates. It wasn’t quite a case of “Rudy,” given the stakes weren’t so high, but it was a story nonetheless.
*A sad but true fact about Sunday’s game was that Michigan’s scholarship guards were a combined 8-of-27 from the field. However, while Kelvin Grady and Ron Coleman combined on just 8 points, Harris had a game-high 27 points thanks to his instinctive offense and 10-of-11 showing from the charity stripe. If not for super freshman Eric Gordon, Harris could be a quiet contender for newcomer of the year.
When Ohio State Had the Ball
*It was excellent first-half execution for Ohio State playing two-man basketball. The high pick-and-roll worked exceptionally well with Jamar Butler and Koufos. Ohio State also tried a couple of give-and-go plays in the corner, and twice attempted the high-low from the elbow. The Buckeyes had a couple of nice backdoor cuts on the baseline, although a few of them went missed by Ohio State ball-handlers. The ball-movement, for once, was never really an issue in the second half. There were a lot of possessions with crisp passing, but shots stopped falling for Ohio State.
*Unlike the ball movement, taking care of the basketball was not something to write home about for Ohio State. Lazy, telegraphed passes littered the perimeter for the Buckeyes, often leading to steals or reset possessions. On a few occasions, it led to easy fastbreak points. Butler, the usually steady Eddie was also a culprit of this careless play.
*While the 7-1 Koufos has been showing extremely improved confidence in his offensive game over the past 2-3 weeks, his confidence has sometimes become detrimental to Ohio State. It’s becoming extremely rare that Koufos passes the ball once he is given an entry pass. Even from 15-feet from the basket, Koufos will work for a shot regardless of how forced, even if it means passing up a kick-out opportunity for an open teammate. By late last season, the Buckeyes had perfected the inside-outside passing of Mike Conley, Butler and Daequan Cook by getting the ball into Greg Oden, and if he sensed a double or triple team, or knew he didn’t have a clear shot, he wasn’t afraid to kick the ball back out for an open 3-pointer. It is unfortunate Koufos couldn’t have a year to learn from Oden in that regard.
*Though it’s hard to see the long view after such a heart-breaking loss, Ohio State fans can find comfort in the slow development of Koufos, Diebler and continued production from Turner. Slowly, Ohio State has been getting more consistent scoring on the offensive end, meaning with games looming against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Purdue in Columbus, an upset or two is not out of the question if the Buckeyes don’t lapse defensively.
Though this loss doesn’t kill Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament chances, it certainly puts the Buckeyes squarely on the bubble for now. A 12-6 or 11-7 finish in the Big Ten (meaning 4-1 or 3-2 the rest of the way) would certainly be good enough, most likely, for a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Of course, with three very tough home games coming up, and trips to Minnesota and Indiana, very little should be taken for granted the rest of the way.
A disastrous finish (0-5 or 1-4) by Ohio State might likely spell doom and N.I.T. But though overused clichés are tiresome in these situations, the Buckeyes truly need to worry about one game at a time.
On the flip side, Michigan can continue riding this hot streak and finish respectably this season, giving the Wolverines a crack at an upper echelon finish in the Big Ten next season. In a conference that may see Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State as the preseason favorites, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa all figure to be solid teams and in some cases, drastically improved.
But Ohio State has this year to think about.
It didn’t look like they were doing much thinking about it Sunday. Michigan was the one that could lay that claim.