Only one team could win, but Saturday’s semifinal game between Michigan and Ohio State showed both teams have bright futures as the NCAA tournament approaches.
While the matchups have yet to be announced — they will be Sunday night following the Big Ten title game — if the Wolverines and Buckeyes keep playing like they have over the first three days in Indianapolis, they’ll both figure to make lengthy tournament runs.
Michigan got the 72-69 win over its biggest rival Saturday, and the regular-season champs have a shot at becoming the conference tournament champs, as well, in Sunday’s title game. But it’s how the Wolverines have won their first two games that should be inspiring that confidence for how they’ll fare in the Big Dance.
March Madness’ longtime mantra has been “survive and advance,” and that’s just what Michigan has done in its first two games against Illinois and Ohio State. In fact, both games followed relatively similar scripts. The Wolverines flexed their offensive firepower in both games, jumping out to double-digit second-half leads only to watch the Illini and Buckeyes use strong defensive efforts to close the gap and take leads of their own. But, in both cases, late clutch plays by the Wolverines gave them the slightest of leads, a win and a ticket to the next round of the tournament.
Saturday, it was a clutch layup from Nik Stauskas (the Big Ten Player of the Year finished with a game-high 19 points) and a clutch offensive rebound by Caris LeVert that saved the day for the Wolverines.
It’s the exact type of game the Wolverines will have to keep winning when the NCAA tournament starts next week.
“I feel so fortunate right now. You look at so many of our games down the stretch here, they've ended just like this and the ball keeps bouncing our way,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said after the game. “You only can have that type of luck if you have guys like these guys sitting next to me. They make enough smart plays to keep you in the game, and some games the ball will just bounce your way.”
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have built some great momentum heading toward the Big Dance. Ohio State appeared to be in that group of mediocre Big Ten teams, losing back-to-back road games to Penn State and Indiana and unable to capture one of the top four spots in the conference tournament. But the Buckeyes closed their regular season with a big win over Michigan State before knocking off Purdue and Nebraska in the first two rounds of the Big Ten Tournament.
Saturday’s game against Michigan might have ended in a loss, but it featured plenty of things to be happy about if you were wearing scarlet and gray. The Buckeyes put their defensive prowess on display, and, more surprisingly, they not only weathered the Wolverines’ offensive onslaught but answered with solid offensive play of their own, something that hasn’t been a strong suit throughout the season.
It was the second straight game — including the win against Nebraska — where the Buckeyes battled back from a double-digit deficit. Having that ability could prove very handy come next week, when the Buckeyes will surely again be up against top competition.
“Kind of dug ourselves into a hole again. I feel like as a team when our head's underwater, we start fighting more, and we started doing that again today,” Ohio State guard Shannon Scott said.
So while one team won and one team lost, both teams were successful Saturday in establishing momentum heading to the true madness of March. Now it comes down to keeping it up as the elimination games begin.