What To Watch:Ohio State @ Michigan

This will be the biggest week of the regular season for Ohio State, which moved up one spot from 11th to 10th in this week’s Associated Press media poll.

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The Buckeyes will visit No. 3 Michigan on Tuesday and will host new No. 1 Indiana on Sunday.

This will mark just the eighth time in OSU program history that the Buckeyes will play top-five ranked teams in consecutive games. It is the first such instance in 11 years and just the second in the last 20 years (see table at the bottom).

Amazingly, this will be the 166th time Ohio State and Michigan have played but just the first time they have met with both teams ranked in the top 10.

Wins in both games this week would move Ohio State at least into a tie for the Big Ten lead. A split would keep the Buckeyes in contact in the conference race.

We asked OSU coach Thad Matta on how he will urge his team to raise its game this week.

“They know that in terms of understanding,” Matta said. “To be honest, we haven’t even talked about Sunday’s game. Obviously, the mind-set is on (Tuesday’s) game. They have a great team. Our guys know in terms of already playing them once that it will be a great challenge for us.

“It’s just a matter of taking care of what you can take care of and let the chips fall where they may.”

We have our preview and a prediction for Tuesday’s game as No. 10 Ohio State visits No. 3 Michigan (9 p.m., ESPN).

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In the video boards, we have comments from OSU coach Thad Matta (above) and players Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas (below).

Here is our What To Watch feature for Tuesday’s game against Michigan:

Opponent: Michigan

* Where: Crisler Center (12,721); Ann Arbor, Mich.

* Date, Time: Tuesday, 9 p.m.

* TV: ESPN (Announcers: Mike Tirico, Dick Vitale and Samantha Ponder)

* 2012-13 Records: Ohio State, 17-4 overall, 7-2 Big Ten; Michigan, 20-2 overall, 7-2 Big Ten

* Poll Rankings: Ohio State, 10th in the AP poll and the USA Today coaches poll; Michigan, third in AP poll and the USA Today coaches poll.

The Buckeyes will wear these special logo uniforms at Michigan

* RPI Rankings: Ohio State, 17th; Michigan, seventh. (OSU is 1-3 against teams currently in the RPI top 25, 2-4 against teams in the top 50 and 6-4 against teams in the top 100. Michigan is 3-2 against teams currently in the RPI top 25, 5-2 against teams in the top 50 and 11-2 against teams in the top 100.)

* Key Players (2012-13 Stats): Ohio State – F Deshaun Thomas, 6-7, jr., 20.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg; G Aaron Craft, 6-2, jr., 9.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.9 spg; G Lenzelle Smith Jr., 6-4, jr., 10.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.6 apg; F LaQuinton Ross, 6-8, so., 7.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg; C Amir Williams, 6-11, so., 4.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg; F-C Evan Ravenel, 6-8, sr., 5.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg; F Sam Thompson, 6-7, so., 6.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg; G Shannon Scott, 6-2, so., 5.2 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.7 spg. Michigan – G Trey Burke, 6-0, so., 18.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 7.2 apg; G Tim Hardaway Jr., 6-6, jr., 15.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg; G Nik Stauskas, 6-6, fr., 12.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg; F Glenn Robinson III, 6-6, fr.., 11.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg; F Jordan Morgan, 6-8, jr., 6.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg; F Mitch McGary, 6-10, fr., 5.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg; G Caris Levert, 6-5, fr., 3.1 ppg.

* Quality Of Opponent: As good as it gets this year in college basketball. Michigan was ranked No. 1 last week for the first time in 20 years. The Wolverines will be coming home after Saturday’s much-hyped loss at then-No. 3 Indiana (81-73).

Burke and Hardaway are the veteran stars in the backcourt, but they are getting plenty of help from freshmen like Stauskas, Robinson and McGary. Michigan is among the nation’s most explosive teams, ranking 16th nationally in scoring (77.8 ppg) and third in field goal percentage (50.5 percent).

Michigan opened the season on a 16-game win streak before falling to the Buckeyes in Columbus Jan. 13 (56-53). The Wolverines are a perfect 13-0 at home this year, winning those games by an average of 24.5 points per game. UM is 2-2 against ranked teams this year with wins over then-No. 18 N.C. State (79-72) and at then-No. 9 Minnesota (83-75) and losses at then-No. 15 Ohio State and then-No. 3 Indiana.

* OSU-Michigan Series: Ohio State leads the all-time series with Michigan 93-72, although Michigan leads 45-36 in games at Ann Arbor.

OSU dealt then-No. 2 Michigan a 56-53 defeat on Jan. 13 in Columbus. Michigan was the last unbeaten team in college basketball before that loss. The Buckeyes jumped on UM early and led by as many as 21 (at 29-8) before the Wolverines rallied to tie it with just under six minutes left. Thomas led OSU with 20 points and four rebounds, while Thompson had nine points. Burke had 15 points and Hardaway scored 13 for Michigan, which shot just 38.3 percent from the floor.

Since his arrival in 2004-05, OSU coach Thad Matta is 17-3 against Michigan. The Buckeyes have won eight of the last nine meetings with the with the Wolverines over the last three-plus years.

Trey Burke and Aaron Craft will renew their rivalry

Ohio State took two out of three games over Michigan last year. The Buckeyes won at home (64-49), lost at Ann Arbor (56-51) and rolled to a win in the Big Ten tournament semifinals in Indianapolis (77-55).

Crisler Center (known as Crisler Arena until a renovation last year) opened in 1968. Since then, OSU is 17-24 in games at that arena. OSU is 4-3 at Crisler under Matta.

* Fun Facts: Ohio State is 3-3 this season in road games. That includes wins at Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska and losses at Duke, Illinois and Michigan State … Matta’s OSU teams are a combined 39-48 against ranked teams in his nine years with the Buckeyes. OSU is 1-4 against ranked teams this year with their loss at then-No. 2 Duke on Nov. 29 (73-68), the home loss to then-No. 9 Kansas (74-66) on Dec. 22, the loss at then No. 11-Illinois (74-55) Jan. 5, the home win over then-No. 2 Michigan (56-53) Jan. 13 and the road loss at then-No. 18 Michigan State (59-56) on Jan. 19. In 13 years as a college head coach, Matta’s teams are a combined 48-57 against ranked teams … OSU is 1-2 this year against top-10 teams. The Buckeyes are 63-116 all-time against top-10 teams … Thomas has 1,317 points for his career, good for the No. 27 spot all-time at Ohio State. Next on the list is Jim Cleamons (26th with 1,335 points) … A total of 24 Ohio State players have scored 1,000 or more points to go with 500 career rebounds. Thomas will be the next to join the club with 30 rebounds.

* Match-Ups To Watch: Everybody always zeroes in on the point guard match-up between OSU’s Craft and Michigan’s Burke. They were teammates in the All-Ohio Red AAU program, even if they were a year apart. They have met four times as college opponents with Craft helping the Buckeyes contain Burke and win three of those games.

Burke hit a clutch jumper over Craft in last year’s UM win in Ann Arbor. But Burke struggled in UM’s Big Ten tournament loss to OSU last year and also missed a late jumper in the loss at OSU in January.

Hardaway is also a tough cover. He played well against OSU and also against Indiana on Saturday. The Buckeyes must find him.

* What’s At Stake: A chance at a huge road victory, a chance to stay within one game of Indiana in the Big Ten race and, oh, yeah, a chance to sweep the regular season series with Michigan. That’s enough, right?

* What They’re Saying: Matta on the difficulty of the Big Ten this year: “We haven’t seen everybody yet. But just seeing on tape and seeing scores and the standings, I would agree. There have been some fabulous basketball teams in this league since I’ve been here. Just looking at college basketball, there is no doubt that this league is as challenging as it’s ever been.”

Matta on the Michigan rivalry: “It’s not like football. The big thing is we’ve already played once. Both of us have a quick turnaround after playing on the road Saturday. It’s on us quickly. There is a chance we could play again in March. I don’t get that quite as much (from fans). When the ball is tipped up, it’s Ohio State and Michigan.”

Matta on the Indiana-Michigan game: “From what I saw, it was a high level basketball game. There were big time plays being made at both ends. It was a hard, tough fought battle.”

Matta on whether his team is ready for the challenge: “We’ve had two good practices. I’ve never had a team exactly where I wanted it. I think we are continuing to make strides and we have to find that consistency. Every night we take the floor, we need our guys to play the best they can. We need all cylinders clicking.”

Craft on playing Michigan coming off a loss: "The biggest concern right now is going up and playing a Michigan team that just took a loss. They're going to be ready to get after it, not only because they just lost but because we were their first loss of the year."

Thomas on OSU’s big week: “It’s going to mean a lot for this team, especially if we can get two wins. They are both highly ranked. I’m hyped. I like a challenge and teams throwing guys on me. Michigan will be switching and trying to confuse us. I’m excited about these two games.”

* Next On The Docket: Ohio State hosts new No. 1 Indiana (20-2, 8-1) on Sunday at 1 p.m. (CBS). Before visiting OSU, Indiana travels to Illinois on Thursday.

* How We See It: We have a different take on this OSU-Michigan game. Thomas Beindit from our Michigan 247Sports.com site asked me to answer 10 questions on the game. Here were his questions and my answers:

1. Tuesday marks the second game played between Michigan and Ohio State this season. However, a lot has changed since the first matchup between these two teams. For fans who haven’t followed OSU that closely since the first game, what has happened with the Buckeyes since Michigan vs. OSU in Columbus?

Helwagen: Ohio State has played 4 straight unranked teams after beating Michigan by 3 and losing by 3 at Michigan State. Deshaun Thomas has continued his torrid pace and had a 25-point game against Wisconsin and Aaron Craft is starting to score more as well as he has come out of his shooting slump.

2. Similar to the previous question, what has changed for the Buckeyes? Has anything changed with the starters or bench and have any players “broken out” since the first meeting with the Wolverines?

Helwagen: Thad Matta is using LaQuinton Ross more on the wing. He steps in for Sam Thompson and brings a three-point and scoring threat. Amir Williams also just played one of his best games with 7 points, 8 rebs, 3 blocks and 2 steals in 28 mins vs. Nebraska.

3. Of course, this game is not “do or die” for either team (both teams are 2nd in the Big Ten standings), but what does this game mean for the Buckeyes? Michigan will be looking to avenge the first meeting, but what would a win or loss mean to Ohio State?

Helwagen: This is the biggest week of the season for OSU with No. 3 Michigan on the road and home with No. 1 Indiana on Sunday. Conventional wisdom is a split keeps OSU in the Big Ten race. A sweep would put the Buckeyes in first place in the conference. These are the kind of teams OSU must play well against if the Buckeyes are to make any noise in the conference tourney or NCAA, so it’s important to be competitive at the very least.

4. Now, moving on to specifics for the game. The big story in the first game was Michigan’s slow start to open the game. If you had to make one prediction, what do you think will be the big story from this game?

Helwagen: How Michigan came out strong. UM’s 2 losses had the same terrible start. OSU has not started well on the road in losses at Illinois and MSU. I can see that happening again if they aren’t ready to roll. UM’s shirts say “We On.” They really do need to be on at the start of this one and get a double-digit lead quickly to plant that seed of doubt in the heads of the Buckeyes.

5. The Buckeyes were able to craft (pun intended) some interesting defenses against Michigan in the first game and were able to slow down Michigan’s ball movement and ability to get to the lane. Do you think anything changes this time?

Helwagen: They will try to do the same. Craft always gets up for Burke and has done well against him in 3 of their 4 meetings. But Burke will be on his home court where he plays really well. Stauskas did not play well first time either. My guess is he steps it up.

6. Michigan isn’t necessarily a team that runs an uptempo offense, but they are very effective when they do push the ball. OSU will likely try to slow the pace. Do you think this is the right idea and how effective do you think they will be at slowing down Michigan?

Helwagen: Nobody really gets fast break points in the Big Ten. It’s just too hard and teams are too disciplined. My guess is Burke breaks out a couple times for easy ones but I can’t see this being a major factor. It will come down to defense and who produces in the halfcourt (like it almost always does in these high powered games)

7. As many have noted over the season, Michigan’s defense and Ohio State’s offense have both been areas each team needed to improve. Deshaun Thomas has been great for Ohio State’s offense, but outside of Thomas, who is the one player Michigan must prepare to defend?

Helwagen: You never know. It could be Thompson one game, Smith the next or Ross or Craft. They can’t let Ravenel and Williams do a lot inside. If they combine for 15 points, that’s trouble.

8. In Michigan and Ohio State’s first matchup of the season, there was a large amount of attention placed on the Burke vs. Craft matchup. Many believe Craft won the first bout of the season. How do you think he fares this time?

Helwagen: Craft will hold his own. He has been playing better of late. If he avoids foul trouble (and that has been an issue at times), he should be OK. Burke will probably outscore him but Craft’s big things are defending and setting up his teammates.

9. There are certain things each team will have to do to win the game. What do you think Michigan needs to do to win the game and what do you think Ohio State needs to do to win this game?

Helwagen: Michigan needs to keep a handle on Thomas. He scores all over the floor and has now taken to setting up his teammates (who knew he could pass?). They can’t let him get loose for much more than 20. If that happens, OSU has a chance. OSU has to rebound and limit second-chance opportunities. That’s been a consistent theme in some of the losses.

10. Final question. Any early predictions for the game’s outcome?

Helwagen: Yeah, my guess is Michigan comes out like a house of fire and shows its class with a nice bounceback win at Crisler. I liked what they did from about the second 10 mins of the first half at Indiana on. If they play like they did during most of that 30-minute stretch, they will be hard to beat. I see UM getting up by 10 to 15 early, OSU getting it back to 5-6 by the half, teams going back and forth in second half and Michigan probably winning like 68-62 in the end. Should be a great game with 2 of the best teams in the conference and the country.

And here is what Beindit sent us for his analysis of the game:

This Tuesday should make for an exciting rivalry game. Unlike the first game, I don't think Michigan will start nearly as badly as they did the first time. There's no way to know for sure what led to the slow start, but Michigan's freshmen appeared rattled in their first tough road game and this was probably a big part of the problem.

Michigan's not going to be able to run away with the game (Ohio State's defense is simply too good to allow that), but if the Wolverines get their offense clicking like it usually does at home, Michigan should be able to jump out to a solid lead and maintain it. The Buckeyes have Deshaun Thomas and have players that can get "on" for a game here or there, but nothing like Michigan's offensive weapons such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas.

The battle between Burke and Craft will be interesting to see again (perhaps the last time we get to see it), but I think the result could be different this time. Most point to Craft as the winner earlier this year, and Burke was definitely lower in his production numbers than usual, but he still hit some big shots and if he hit that three-point shot late in the game, he may have been the hero of the game.

The other aspect that doesn't get a lot of credit is that Burke and Michigan as a whole have improved defensively. With homecourt advantage and an improved defense, the Buckeyes may find it harder to get and make open shots. Ultimately, the game will be competitive and hard fought, but without the crowd, the Buckeyes won't repeat on their tremendous start and won't be able to overcome a dominant Wolverine offense. Michigan wins by eight points.

OSU Vs. Back-To-Back Top-Five Opponents

This will be just the eighth time since AP rankings began in 1948 that Ohio State will play top-five ranked opponents in consecutive games.

Here are the previous instances:

* 1948-49 -- Feb. 12, lost at No. 4 Illinois 64-49; Feb. 14, won at No. 2 St. Louis 68-60.

* 1967-68 (three consecutive games) – March 16, won at No. 5 Kentucky 82-81; March 22, lost to No. 4 North Carolina 80-66; March 23, won over No. 1 Houston 89-85. These were all NCAA Tournament games. OSU defeated Kentucky in a regional final, lost to UNC at the Final Four in Los Angeles and defeated Houston in the consolation game.

* 1972-73 – Feb. 5, won over No. 5 Indiana 70-69; Feb. 10, lost to No. 5 Minnesota 80-78.

* 1986-87 – Jan. 24, won at No. 1 Iowa 80-76; Jan. 29, lost to No. 4 Purdue 75-73.

* 1992-93 – Jan. 24, lost at No. 2 Indiana 96-69; Jan. 26, lost at No. 5 Michigan 72-62.

* 1992-93 – Feb. 23, won over No. 1 Indiana 81-77 (overtime); Feb. 28, won over No. 5 Michigan 66-64.

* 2002-03 – Nov. 29, lost to No. 4 Alabama 54-48 (at Springfield, Mass.); Dec. 3, lost to No. 4 Duke 91-76 (at Greensboro, N.C.).

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