ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When it comes to college sports, no two schools are greater adversaries than Michigan and Ohio State. But in terms of the 2019-20 basketball season, these bitter rivals are an embodiment of the double-pointing Spider-Man meme.
Sure, there were different expectations for these teams at the start of the season. Michigan, under a brand-new, unproven head coach, was nowhere near the preseason top 25. Ohio State, meanwhile, shouldered the loftiest expectations for the program in years, checking in at No. 18.
Fast forward five weeks: both teams found themselves ranked in the top six nationally.
Michigan tore through the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, knocking off Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga along the way. Throw in a home victory over Creighton and the Wolverines had the best resume in the country.
Ohio State wasn’t far off, though. The Buckeyes were also 7-0, sporting wins over Villanova, Cincinnati and, ultimately, North Carolina.
The next couple of weeks brought on a series of minor speed bumps for both teams. Michigan lost forgivable games at Louisville and Illinois while dropping a home game against Oregon. Two were top 10 teams and Illinois is at the top of the Big Ten. There was no reason to panic.
Ohio State saw its undefeated record vanish at Minnesota before losing its last non-conference game against West Virginia.
Neither team stayed inside the top 10, but entering the meat of Big Ten play at 10-3 for Michigan and 11-2 for Ohio State was an accomplishment for both teams, considering the quality of competition.
Losing streaks in Big Ten play
January, to put it lightly, was an unmitigated disaster for both teams.
Ohio State dropped five of six games, including home games against Wisconsin and Minnesota. Its only win came at home against bottom feeder Nebraska.
Guess who else lost five of six? That’s right. Michigan needed double overtime to beat Purdue at home and otherwise dropped five Big Ten games, including two at home.
When fans woke up the morning of Jan. 26, both Michigan and Ohio State were 2-6 in league play, unranked and on long losing streaks. They went from contending for No. 1 seeds to NCAA Tournament bubble teams in the span of a month.
Last week offered some stability as Michigan beat Nebraska and Rutgers while Ohio State knocked off Northwestern and Indiana.
Not only did those wins put their respective slides on hold. They also kept Michigan and Ohio State in the projected field of 68, though there’s still plenty of basketball left to play.
But will either team return to full strength? Michigan’s struggles directly coincide with injuries to star forward Isaiah Livers, who missed five Big Ten games in January as well as the two games last week.
Michigan began the season 9-3 with a healthy Livers. It also held a second-half lead over Illinois before Livers, who had returned to the starting lineup, went down with another injury.
Without him, Michigan is just 4-5, counting the Illinois game.
The Wolverines also played at Nebraska without point guard Zavier Simpson, who was suspended for a violation of team policies. He has since rejoined the team.
Ohio State recently lost freshman phenom D.J. Carton, who is taking some time away from the team to deal with a mental health issue. It’s unclear if or when Carton will return, but he missed the team’s game against Indiana.
Regardless of who suits up Tuesday, Michigan and Ohio State enter the night deadlocked at 4-6 in the conference, good for an 11th-place tie.
Home court has been a huge advantage for Big Ten teams this season, but not necessarily for Michigan.
The Wolverines have already lost three times at the Crisler Center, including their last two Big Ten games. Penn State and Illinois are NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, but Michigan should have taken care of business in Ann Arbor. Those losses, more than any other, dropped the Maize and Blue officially out of the Big Ten title race.
Ohio State can win on the road. It’s already taken down North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Northwestern in Evanston. Otherwise, though, trips to Minnesota, Maryland, Indiana and Penn State didn’t go well, with the Buckeyes losing by an average of 12.75 points.
Kaleb Wesson remains a load. He leads Ohio State with 13.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, as well as shooting 41.2% from beyond the arc. With Michigan handing out career performances to opposing centers like giveaways at an Oprah Winfrey talk show, Wesson seems a likely candidate to explode at Crisler.
Wesson’s career high is 31 points last season against Youngstown State. That could be a number to watch Tuesday night.
Who will do the scoring on the other side of the court? Well, that’s been a bit of a tossup for the Wolverines.
Last game, Brandon Johns Jr. dropped a career-high 20 points. Before that, Eli Brooks lifted Michigan with 20 points. Simpson, Teske and Franz Wagner have all taken turns leading the team in scoring since Livers went down.
Ohio State has the No. 23 defense in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The five teams Michigan has faced that ranked higher than Ohio State on defense -- Rutgers, Louisville, Purdue, Penn State and Michigan State -- have gone 3-2 against the Wolverines.
The winner of Tuesday night’s duel will pull into a four-way tie for eighth in the conference with Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota. The loser drops into sole possession of 12th place.