There’s always something extra on the line in any rivalry game.
Bragging rights. Pride. A statement win. A resume-crushing loss. The list goes on and on.
For No. 5 Michigan, there’s more than that at stake. With Michigan State dropping its first conference game this past weekend, the Wolverines (19-1, 8-1 Big Ten) have a chance to move back into a first-place tie atop the Big Ten standings in Tuesday night’s clash with Ohio State.
All they have to do is take care of business at Crisler Center against the Buckeyes (13-6, 3-5), who have lost five of six heading into the teams’ lone regular-season showdown.
“They present some great challenges. They're a young, talented team,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Monday. “They got off to a great start and then played a brutal Big Ten schedule of (four) home and (four) away.
“We've got some work to do here against them and obviously it's a great rivalry.”
Michigan has won four of the last five meetings against Ohio State in Ann Arbor, with a devastating loss on Feb. 4, 2017 serving as a tipping point of sorts.
While only a handful of current Wolverines were on the roster at the time, the impact of that stunning defeat two seasons ago is still felt and has been “mentioned once or twice” this year, according to Beilein.
And for good reason, because it seemed to flip a switch that hasn’t been turned off. Since then, the Wolverines have gone 64-12 with two conference tournament titles, two program records, two win streaks of at least 14 games and a national title game appearance.
“I don't know if it changed our program,” Beilein said. “It changed that season, that's for sure … It certainly helped us get from a very middling type of record to what we've been able to do since that game.”
More importantly, though, that night seemed to shift the team’s mentality. The Wolverines have gone from a squad that bemoaned their lack of grit to one that has seen an endless stream of opposing coaches commend Michigan for being the tougher team.
“I know it had an effect on that season but when you have an effect on attitude, we created a bigger edge on our team after that one,” Beilein said. “I think everyone sort of follows afterward an emphasis on defense, an emphasis on playing through adversity and finding a way to make things happen even when things aren't going your way.”
Mostly everything has seemingly gone Michigan’s way so far this season, which is something Ohio State can’t say.
After an impressive start, the Buckeyes stumbled with a five-game skid that included home losses to Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue sandwiched around back-to-back road bumps at Rutgers and Iowa. They finally snapped their slide with a 10-point win last weekend at Nebraska for their first conference road win.
The rough stretch was compounded with sophomore forward Kyle Young being sidelined with a stress fracture in his leg. According to Beilein, Young’s absence has forced the Buckeyes to play “super small” at times due to their lack of interior depth.
It’s led to Ohio State utilizing a 2-3 zone on defense, a look Michigan has had its struggles against early on and Beilein acknowledged “we’re a better zone offensive team now than we were a couple months ago.”
The Wolverines will get a chance to prove it on Tuesday night — and an opportunity to put themselves in a better-than-envisioned position at the midway point of the Big Ten season.
“I definitely would've taken that (9-1 conference mark). If we could do that, that would be a great start to this part of the season,” Beilein said. “I think this little cannibalism going on right now between the teams that just happened Saturday with some of the away teams winning, that’s something we want to stay away from when we're at home.”
Ohio State at Michigan
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 5 Michigan 19-1, 8-1 Big Ten; Ohio State 13-6, 3-5
Outlook: Sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson leads Ohio State in scoring (14.9 points) and rebounding (6.8)…The Buckeyes are 37-47 in Ann Arbor and 15-27 when the Wolverines are ranked…Michigan has won the last five meetings in the series when either team has been ranked ... Crisler Center will host a “Motown Night” theme for the game.