Buckeyes, Wolverines can agree hoops matchup is unprecedented in rivalry history

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State guard CJ Walker, here scoring against Michigan's Eli Brooks on March 1 at Value City Arena, says today's top-5 matchup is  "a big game for Ohio State as a program."

There’s not an agreement on the all-time men’s basketball series between Ohio State and Michigan.

Consult the official record books and you’ll find two sets of numbers in a series that dates to 1909 on account of NCAA sanctions at both programs. According to the Buckeyes, they lead the series with their rivals, 99-78. If you check with the Wolverines, they will tell you that Ohio State holds a 102-72 overall advantage. 

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Recognized or not, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have played each other 184 times — with Ohio State leading 105-79 — and none of them will be like Sunday’s game. In the 185th game, No. 4 Ohio State will host No. 3 Michigan in the first-ever top-5 matchup in rivalry history.

“That’s a big game for Ohio State as a program,” senior guard CJ Walker said. “I know we’re going to go out there and play as hard as we can. The best is going to win at the end of the night, and I feel like our team is capable of doing that.”

There’s plenty on the line in this one, even beyond the chance for the Buckeyes to become the second team to ever earn the “gold jerseys” for sweeping a season series with Michigan (provided there isn’t a loss to the Wolverines in the Big Ten tournament). Both teams are projected as No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

Plus, the lack of a game on the football field this year adds to the allure.

“We understand what ‘The Game’ in football is,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I recognize the importance of that to our fanbase. It’s important to our players. I think the best way to honor a rivalry is to respect it for what it is and to try to bring your best competitive stuff to it.”

It might not have any impact on the top of the Big Ten standings, though. After a COVID-19 pause, Michigan is now scheduled to finish with 17 Big Ten games played this season while the Buckeyes are on pace for 20. Should Ohio State win out, the Wolverines would have to lose two more of their final five games to have their winning percentage drop below a 16-4 (.800) mark for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. is guarded by Michigan's Eli Brooks at Value City Arena on March 1.

Winning percentage remains the metric the league plans to use to award a regular-season champion. While speaking Thursday as part of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission’s “Virtual Sports Report,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said that while teams that don’t have the opportunity to play a full season can still obviously be good teams, “We may have to make different decisions about tiebreakers and such decisions.”

That’s not on Holtmann’s mind just yet, in part because winning out would mean the Buckeyes would close with wins against top-6 KenPom.com teams in three of their final four games. And that starts with Michigan, the lone team aside from unbeaten Gonzaga and Baylor to enter the weekend as a top-10 team in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.

At 15-1, Michigan has navigated a 23-day COVID-related layoff and won both games since its return. The lone loss of the season is an 18-point defeat at Minnesota on January 16, little more than a week since the Wolverines were shut down to a positive test for a COVID-19 variant on campus.

The Buckeyes have kept playing, but Holtmann said Friday they would need as much rest and recovery as possible following a Thursday win at Penn State. Senior Kyle Young and graduate transfer Seth Towns were both dealing with injuries throughout and from the game, and both are expected to be able to play against the Wolverines.

Ohio State men's basketball:For Kyle Young, Seth Towns and the Buckeyes, rest will be crucial as Michigan game looms

They'll be needed.

“They’re a legit national title contender,” Holtmann said of Michigan. “It’s a tremendous program. We’ve got great respect for them. We’re going to need to play our very best.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

TV: CBS (Ch. 10)

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)