Rob Oller | Michigan comes up big — and bigger — against Ohio State

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Michigan center Hunter Dickinson is guarded by Ohio State forwards Zed Key (23) and Kyle Young on Sunday at Value City Arena. Dickinson had 22 points and nine rebounds in the Wolverines' victory.

Ohio State had the best player on the floor. Michigan had the tallest. Height won.

The Buckeyes and Wolverines hooked up for a wild rodeo ride on Sunday afternoon in Value City Arena, and when the dust cleared No. 3 Michigan proved itself a tad better than the No. 4 Scarlet and Gray. The Maize and Blue also were vertically superior where it counts.

One can argue over who might be OSU’s best player. My eyes tell me forward E.J. Liddell, but I would not protest if Duane Washington Jr. is your pick. Both played tremendously in the Buckeyes’ 92-87 loss, with Liddell scoring 23 points and grabbing 10 rebounds and Washington going for a career-high 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 5 of 10 from three-point range.

Yet basketball is a game of size. And size matters. Thus, UM 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson was the Michigan Man of the hour.

“He’s a big dude,” Liddell said of UM’s giant, who scored 22 points with nine rebounds. “He’s 5 or 6 inches taller than me, and sometimes I adjusted to it and sometimes I didn’t.”

Nowhere was Dickinson’s size more destructive than when he blocked Liddell’s jump shot with Michigan leading 82-76 with 1:23 to play. From there, the Wolverines turned a tight game into a foul shooting contest, which they were not about to lose. 

The Buckeyes play beautiful basketball, which is to say they play hard, execute offensively and have enough character — and characters, we’re looking at you, Washington — to make this a fun team to watch. The question now is what happens going forward? After winning seven in a row, what does this loss do to the psyche?

The Buckeyes finish the Big Ten regular season with games at unranked Michigan State and home against No. 11 Iowa and No. 5 Illinois. That’s a meaty run-up to the conference tournament. History suggests that if Ohio State can get through the upcoming mini-gauntlet unscathed, things bode well for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, which is being played exclusively in neighboring Indiana. 

Ohio State has not lost consecutive games this season. The last time that happened was 2011-12, when the Buckeyes advanced to the Final Four in New Orleans before losing to Kansas 64-62 in the national semifinal. 

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson is guarded by Ohio State forward Zed Key on Sunday at Value City Arena. Dickinson had 22 points in the Wolverines' victory.

Diving deeper, Ohio State has avoided back-to-back losses only three times since 1998-99, when Jim O’Brien’s team made a surprising run to the Final Four before finally bowing out against Connecticut in the semifinal. But even those Buckeyes lost two games in a row on two separate occasions.

The 2006-07 Buckeyes of Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. came within two points of losing consecutive games — a 68-66 win against Tennessee after losing to Wisconsin four days earlier — only to run the table all the way to the national championship game, where it lost 84-75 to Florida. Joining that team and the 2011-12 edition were the 2010-11 Buckeyes that advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing 62-60 to Kentucky.

Tracking such analytics are less advanced metrics than common sense — the best teams tend to avoid back-to-back losses. Put another way, since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975 and to 64 teams in 1985, only the 1991-92 and 1998-99 Buckeyes advanced beyond the Sweet 16 after losing two straight games in a season.

In the case of Ohio State, however, avoiding L-L etc. is especially significant when viewed in the dimmer light of recent seasons. 

Consider the past two seasons, when Holtmann’s teams at times were bald tires on black ice as they slid to five straight losses in 2018-19 and four straight in 2019-20. One wondered what was going on that would allow such lasting stubbed toes. Did Holtmann and his staff grind players to the point where midseason stumbles were to be expected? A case of a tired team catching its breath before March? Or instead were the string of consecutive losses evidence of something more sinister, perhaps team chemistry issues? 

Regardless, by avoiding any hint of a losing skid this season the Buckeyes have made a case that the past two years were anomalies. At least that is what Buckeye Nation is hoping as OSU prepares to respond to its fifth loss in this virus-strained season. How the Buckeyes bounced back from their previous defeats indicate this is not a bunch prone to woe-is-me moping.

Ohio State followed its first loss to Purdue with a 77-70 win against UCLA; followed its next loss to Northwestern by bludgeoning Nebraska 90-54; followed its next loss to Minnesota with a 79-68 win at Rutgers; and followed its second loss to Purdue, and fourth overall, by winning 74-62 at Wisconsin. 

Another opportunity presents itself. For a team that takes every possession personally, we’re about to find out how personally it takes a loss to one of the best teams in the nation.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD