When No. 3 Michigan plays at No. 4 Ohio State on Sunday, the game will be not only a conference showdown but also one with national implications.
The Wolverines (15-1, 10-1 Big Ten) and Buckeyes (18-4, 12-4) are vying for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and the winner in Columbus, Ohio, will make a statement.
“I’m ready and excited for that challenge,” Michigan guard Mike Smith said. “It’s prime time, and you live for these types of games. It’s going to be a championship-caliber matchup. We work so hard to play in games like these, so it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Actually, it’s a 1 p.m. ET tipoff, but the point is correct: There will be a lot of eyes on the game.
Ohio State guard CJ Walker said the date has been marked on his calendar for a long time.
“That’s a really big game for us,” he said.
Each team is on a roll. The Wolverines have a COVID-19-interrupted four-game winning streak. After their lone loss, 75-57 at then-No. 23 Minnesota on Jan. 16, they won two straight, then went on a three-week pause because of virus-related issues and had five games postponed.
The Wolverines returned to defeat No. 21 Wisconsin 67-59 on the road on Feb. 14 and top Rutgers 71-64 at home on Thursday.
“(Michigan) is as good a team I’ve seen in my five years here,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell postgame.
Penn State interim coach Jim Ferry had similar sentiments about the Buckeyes on Thursday after Ohio State downed the host Nittany Lions 92-82 for their seventh straight win and 10th in 11 games.
“That’s a Final Four-caliber team,” he said.
The Buckeyes will rely on Walker, a senior who has adapted to the role of sixth man after missing four games with a hand injury, and junior guard Duane Washington Jr. Walker had 13 points and seven assists, while Washington scored 21 points vs. the Nittany Lions.
“Having older guards is really, really important because they’ve been through a lot of these moments,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “Those guys are fearless, too. It’s how they play. It’s who they are. They’re fearless. But they also understand what winning possessions late looks like. And sometimes younger guards don’t understand what winning possessions late look like.”
Michigan got a game-high 20 points plus seven rebounds and three assists from Franz Wagner in the win over Rutgers.
“Franz is an amazing talent,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s also an amazing worker in practice. How he approaches practice is the same way how he approaches games. Very professional, very mature-like, always thriving to get improved.”
Wagner is less concerned about personal plaudits than seeing the Wolverines continue to improve.
“We don’t play to say we had a good first half of the season,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more to do to achieve our goals that we set before the season.
“The next game is another step for us. We’ve got to be ready on Sunday. … and try to be as good as we can for a very good team.”
–Field Level Media