Fresh off a difficult win over a pesky Penn State team on Thursday night, the No. 4 Ohio State men’s basketball team will have little time to rest as its prepares for, perhaps, the game of the season in the Big Ten.
On Friday, head coach Chris Holtmann met with the media to discuss the challenge that awaits his team on Sunday when the Buckeyes take on Michigan.
The Wolverines, ranked third in the latest AP Poll, will come into Columbus having lost just once this season. But since that 75-57 loss to Minnesota in mid-January, Michigan has struggled to even stay on the court, playing just two more games before going on a three-week hiatus as a result of COVID-19 concerns.
Despite the pause, Michigan has seemingly not missed a beat, winning at No. 21 Wisconsin and at home against Rutgers in its return to play. With the wins, and Ohio State taking care of business on Thursday, the stage is now set for the first-ever top-five matchup between the two traditional rivals.
“Obviously, we have a tremendous opponent on Sunday,” Holtmann said on Friday. “I think everyone is well aware of how good they are. They’re phenomenal, they’re a legitimate national title contender. I really believe that.”
Holtmann said Michigan has taken on the personality of their second-year head coach and former “Fab Five” member, Juwan Howard, as a smart, composed, tough, and highly-competitive team.
Dating back to previous head coach John Beilein’s tenure in Ann Arbor, the Michigan program has developed into a yearly power in college basketball, something Holtmann said Howard has been able to continue. Although Michigan has currently played four fewer games than Ohio State as a result of the COVID pause, Holtmann said he believes Howard and the Wolverines would have won 30 games this season in a normal, full schedule.
While much of the emphasis for Ohio State will be on trying to slow down Michigan’s high-powered offense, which will feature talented scorers with great size both in the post and on the wing, the Wolverines aren’t lacking on the defensive end. During Michigan’s return to action against Wisconsin last weekend, it was a suffocating defensive effort from the Wolverines that helped them to overcome a difficult shooting performance to secure a big road win.
“They’re an elite defensive team,” Holtmann said. “They are phenomenal on that end. They’re big, they’re long, and they are physical.”
For an Ohio State team that hasn’t always been locked in defensively this season, how the Buckeyes are able to attack and create on the offensive end will be paramount to their chances of securing the biggest win of the season.
First and foremost for Holtmann will be ensuring his team will be physically ready to go on Sunday, which he said was the entire focus on Friday. A couple of Buckeyes were banged up in the win over Penn State, including Kyle Young and Seth Towns, who left the game in the second half and didn’t return.
Holtmann said both will need some time off ahead of the game to recover, but he expects both to play against Michigan. The quick turnaround, as he described the stretch between Thursday and Sunday, won’t exactly do the Buckeyes any favors. However, Michigan will be experiencing the same turnaround, and Holtmann said the timing can’t get in the way of their preparation and, ultimately, effort on Sunday afternoon.
“There are no excuses,” Holtmann said. “Everybody has quick turnarounds in this business. We’ve got to figure out a way to be our best come Sunday.”
Of course, in normal times, Holtmann and the Buckeyes would be able to feed off an electric crowd inside Value City Arena for such a matchup. But like so many other things in sports over the past year, COVID-19 will rob college basketball fans of such an environment on Sunday. Holtmann lamented the inability of fans to be in the building, both for their own experiences and those of his players.
“Three out of four games are going to be at home against top-10 opponents,” Holtmann said. “But this one, in particular, I hate it that our fans can’t be in the building, and I hate it for our players.”
Holtmann later added of the absence of fans for the game, “There’s nothing I’d like more. Outside of world peace, I don’t think there is anything I’d like more than to be able to open this thing up for Sunday’s game. It would be the hottest ticket in a long, long time.
“There aren’t many opportunities this late in the year that provide this type of a matchup. Now hopefully, both teams can perform at a high enough level where it is an entertaining game. But it just would have been a tremendous experience for our fans.”
Sunday’s game will tip off at 1 p.m., and CBS will carry the broadcast.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.