| The Detroit News
This is why grad transfer guard Mike Smith came to Michigan. For moments like this.
A battle between two top-five teams and projected NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds. A nationally televised bout between a pair of Big Ten heavyweights. A massive matchup with major implications on the conference race.
“You live for these games,” Smith said after Thursday’s win over Rutgers. “It’s going to be a championship-caliber game. You work so hard to play in these games. It’s primetime.
“It’s going to be fun. I’m really excited for this.”
Smith is one of several new faces who will be looking to make his mark in the rivalry and tip the scales for No. 3 Michigan in Sunday’s showdown at No. 4 Ohio State, which is the only regular-season meeting between the teams.
He’ll also try to help the Wolverines (15-1, 10-1 Big Ten) turn the tide in the series, one that the Buckeyes (18-4, 12-4) have had the upper hand in recent years. Ohio State swept both games last season and has won five of the past seven meetings.
On top of that, Michigan hasn’t found much success when it has made the trip to Columbus, losing 14 of the past 16 contests at Value City Arena.
Despite those trends, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann is wary of what he’s seen from Michigan. The Wolverines have won four straight, including their first two games back from a three-week layoff.
Even though Michigan hasn’t been eviscerating foes like it did before the shutdown, Smith pointed out a team “can’t win the Big Ten not playing well every day” and believes it’s only a matter of time before the Wolverines return to their juggernaut form.
Yet, Holtmann doesn’t think Michigan has skipped a beat. He noted elite teams haven’t had much of a drop-off after a COVID-19 break and the Wolverines fit that bill after dominating the second half at Wisconsin and flexing their defensive muscles against Rutgers.
“I think everybody is well aware of how good they are,” Holtmann said Friday. “They’re a legitimate national champion contender.
“(Coach Juwan Howard) has continued on with this phenomenal run they’ve had in the last 10 years. …I believe this current team that Juwan has would’ve had a 30-plus win season if we would’ve had a full season.”
The same could be said about the Buckeyes. They’re one of the hottest teams in the nation and have been on a tear over the past month, winning seven straight and 10 of their past 11 games. During that stretch, Ohio State has beaten four consecutive top-15 opponents and has six victories by at least 10 points.
Neither team is lacking momentum or confidence heading into a rivalry tilt that will have no shortage of emotion and intensity. Not to mention impact on Michigan’s title pursuit, though the Wolverines are keeping their focus on the task at hand instead of on the conference standings.
“Obviously some people do know, but I think that’s the least of our worries right now,” Smith said. “I think just taking one game at a time is what’s important to us. You don’t want to think too much or too far ahead about how many games we’ve got to win. Just win that one game and that for sure will help us achieve what we want.”
It’s not quite The Game but it’s arguably the biggest game of the college basketball season. And as the Big Ten race reaches the final turn, Ohio State is merely the latest obstacle standing in Michigan’s way.
“We don’t play to say we had a good first half of the season,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “I think we’ve got a lot more work to do to achieve our goals that we set before the season and the next game is just another step for us.
“We’ve got to be ready on Sunday. We’ve got to prepare really well, look at what we did wrong (against Rutgers) and try to be as good as we can on Sunday against a really good team.”
No. 3 Michigan at No. 4 Ohio State
Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Records: Michigan 15-1, 10-1 Big Ten; Ohio State 18-4, 12-4
Outlook: The Wolverines have lost four straight at Value City Arena, where they haven’t won since 2014. … The Buckeyes are 10-1 at home this season and are led by forward E.J. Liddell (15.5 points) and Grand Rapids native Duane Washington Jr. (14.9 points). …Ohio State owns an 8-7 edge in games where both teams are ranked.
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