Ann Arbor — Not long ago, Michigan and Ohio State were both ranked in the top five in the nation and were viewed as Big Ten title contenders.
Since then, the Wolverines and Buckeyes have taken their lumps and endured a slump that sent them tumbling out of the polls, with Michigan losing five of six and Ohio State dropping six of seven.
Now the rivals find themselves pushing past their respective rough patches with back-to-back wins and piecing their confidence back together heading into Tuesday’s matchup at Crisler Center.
"You look at the standings and you realize it's a very important game,” freshman wing Franz Wagner said Monday. "I think you can say we've had a similar path, but we've got to understand that's in the past now. Our last game against Rutgers (on Saturday), we can't really get anything from that anymore. We've got to forget that, remember the good things we did and work on some solutions for our mistakes.
“We can't keep thinking about how we started off the season and stuff like that. I think it's very important that we stay focused on us and stay focused on the right now. The most important thing is Ohio State.”
The Buckeyes (14-7, 4-6 Big Ten) climbed as high as No. 2 in the country and were starting to get penciled in as a Final Four candidate after an 11-1 start saw them record impressive top-10 wins over Villanova at home, North Carolina on the road and Kentucky at a neutral site.
Those lofty expectations came crashing down with the subsequent losing stretch. Ohio State suffered double-digit defeats at Maryland, Indiana and Penn State and dropped home contests to Wisconsin and Minnesota before pulling out of the tailspin with victories at Northwestern and against Indiana last week.
Similarly, the Wolverines (13-8, 4-6) received plenty of buzz after a 7-0 start sent them soaring to No. 4 in the nation and a No. 1 seed in early NCAA Tournament bracket projections. But like Ohio State, Michigan’s hot start fizzled as it lost eight of 10 against high-major foes over the course of December and January.
With the season on the verge of going off the rails, the Wolverines got back on track by ending their road woes at Nebraska — with senior guard Zavier Simpson serving a one-game suspension — and taking care of business against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden.
"I think the toughest thing is just having the ups and downs, the highs and lows and trying to keep a level head and staying composed,” sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. said. “If we lose, it's not the end of the world. When you win, it's not the end of the world also. You've got to keep working no matter what. If you can stay consistent in those areas, then you'll be fine.”
Michigan coach Juwan Howard said when it comes to navigating the peaks and valleys throughout the season, the key is to manage what’s manageable and “control the controllables.”
But what teams like Michigan and Ohio State can’t control are injuries. Wagner missed the first four games of the season with a fractured right wrist and junior forward Isaiah Livers, the team’s top outside shooter, has missed eight total games, including the last two, with a lower body injury. According to Howard, Livers is improving and “hopefully he’ll be back soon.”
Meanwhile, Ohio State has had only three players appear in every game this season and will be without freshman guard D.J. Carton, who took an indefinite leave to focus on his mental health.
“With our group we have to find out areas of how we can get better, maintain the consistency,” Howard said. “Injuries play a role, but no one feels sorry for you. You can't foresee any of the injuries happening. You've got to go with what you have, keep plugging away, keep coaching and keep grinding.”
Even though Ohio State is tied with Michigan for 11th place in the Big Ten, that doesn’t lessen the threat the Buckeyes pose. Howard said he’s wary of Ohio State’s inside play led by junior big man Kaleb Wesson, its 3-point shooting — five Buckeyes are shooting at least 40% from deep — and its defense that ranks third in the conference in scoring (61.3 points) and field-goal percentage (38.3%).
The matchup also hasn’t lost any luster given the teams’ struggles that have left them scrambling to make a late push from the back of the pack with 10 conference games remaining.
"Ohio State is a big rivalry for us and it means a lot to me for sure,” said Johns, an East Lansing native. “We've got to guard our home state.
“We've just got to stay composed and be the aggressor of the game. I think the more physical we are, it turns out to be helpful for us.”
While Michigan’s and Ohio State’s seasons have followed a similar trajectory to this point, only one will be able to continue its climb up the standings on Tuesday.
“They're down there with us,” Howard said. “I'm sure everyone recalls a time earlier in the year where both of us were at the top.
“We're in a really good conference, but there's a lot of season to be played. I'm sure Ohio State is scratching and clawing and talking about how important this game is going to be tomorrow, and so are we.”
Ohio State at Michigan
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Ohio State 14-7, 4-6 Big Ten; Michigan 13-8, 4-6
Outlook: The game will be a “Stripe Out” with alternating sections of maize and blue T-shirts at Crisler Center. Michigan has won four of the last five meetings between the teams in Ann Arbor. … Ohio State is led by junior center Kaleb Wesson (13.9 points, 9.7 rebounds) and leads the Big Ten in 3-point shooting (38.1 percent).