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Buckeyes' Russell poses stiff test for Wolverines

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell is the frontrunner for Big Ten freshman of the year.

Ann Arbor — Michigan suffered one of its most lopsided defeats in its first game against Ohio State on Jan. 13.

Freshman guard D'Angelo Russell led the Buckeyes with 21 points, four rebounds and six assists in the 71-52 romp. It was only one of a season of premier performances for Russell, who is the frontrunner for Big Ten freshman of the year.

UM (13-13, 8-6 Big Ten) will get another look at Russell and Ohio State on Sunday at Crisler Center, looking to end its five-game losing streak and try to build a resume for the NIT Tournament.

Some are lauding Russell as the best freshman in the Big Ten since the Wolverines' Trey Burke was a second-team All-America three years ago.

"I heard Jim Harbaugh say this: 'It's tough to compare great to great.' It's really important to say that. He's shown he's in those categories of guys," UM coach John Beilein said. "What I like best about him is he's not just a scorer — he's an incredible passer and he's got good length and speed.

"He's got the unique skill set of being very prepared in almost every way."

At 6-foot-5, Russell was tough to defend in the first meeting and has had an eye-opening first year in Columbus, boasting two 30-point games and a triple-double, with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists against Rutgers two weeks ago.

"He was so good against us. I was watching the (game) video and he was just doing things you can't teach. I watched his game against Northwestern a week later and he was making some passes and some plays," Beilein said. "He just sees the game at a different level than most freshmen. Not only is he athletic and can shoot — his IQ for the game is exceptional."

For Michigan, the plan will be to try to crowd him and provide plenty of defensive help as he tries to get to the basket. The problem is that because of Russell's passing ability, he can carve up a defense that doesn't have an individual player who can try to match up against him.

With Caris LeVert out for the season, the responsibility could fall to freshmen Aubrey Dawkins or Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

"He's such a good passer, he'll see those open guys maybe more than we will," Beilein said. "When you have that type of talent, you could do everything right and he could still put the ball in the basket and that's disheartening to teams and their defense."

Fresh debate

The issue of freshman eligibility in the Big Ten has been a hot topic this week, with the conference considering having first-year players sit out.

Beilein said he hasn't talked to UM interim athletic director Jim Hackett about his stance on the issue but is looking to get more information on the topic before making a statement.

"I don't have strong feelings either way yet. I'm sure both sides have some merit to it and I probably need to know more before I comment and hear why we're examining this and look at stats coming in and what they've been able to do," Beilein said. "We should explore everything we can in college athletics and see if there's a better way."

Although Beilein acknowledged the position that proponents would want to ensure that students have time to adjust academically and socially before beginning their athletic careers, he pointed out that it's a cookie-cutter approach and has its pros and cons.

"That's what I'm sure those that support it are saying. That obviously has some merit to it," he said. "However, we have some great freshmen that have come in at different times and have really adjusted very well and still got their degrees. There are arguments both ways."

Michigan vs. Ohio State

Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

Records: Michigan 13-13, 6-8 Big Ten; Ohio State 19-7, 8-5

TV/radio: CBS/WWJ

Outlook: UM is looking to end a five-game losing streak, its longest in four years. The Buckeyes dominated the first meeting by 19 points and have one of the best rookies in the country in D'Angelo Russell (19.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists).