/As the NCAA Tournament looms ahead, Michigan vs. Ohio State arrived at perfect time for college basketball
As the NCAA Tournament looms ahead, Michigan vs. Ohio State arrived at perfect time for college basketball

As the NCAA Tournament looms ahead, Michigan vs. Ohio State arrived at perfect time for college basketball

Michigan-Ohio State is just what college basketball needed.

Arguably the most anticipated game of the regular season eclipsed the hype, offering more compelling play and interest in the schools’ rivalry than football has been able to provide for most of the past decade. A bonus: this was the first top-five college hoops matchup between the programs in their history. Third-ranked Michigan got, from a résumé standpoint, what could be the most accomplished road victory this season with a 92-87 win over No. 4 OSU.

It was as entertaining and provocative a game between two ranked teams that we’ve seen in the past three months.

This has been a rocky season — as predicted — in college basketball. Each week 40-80 games are postponed or canceled. High-end teams like Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Villanova and Florida State have gone on weeks-long pauses. You never want your best teams out of sight (thus out of mind), but that’s how it’s been for much of the past three months. Sure, it’s been a joy to have college basketball at all, even with the problems that come with hosting a season amid a pandemic, but it’s fair to say the sport has lacked some juice as it’s staggered along after losing the 2020 NCAA Tournament.

All of that seemed to vanish in two hours on Sunday when a national audience tuned in order to tune up for March. A top-five tilt gilded by two of the biggest college athletic brands wound up providing a high-octane, can’t-turn-away outcome. Chef’s-kiss delectable.

This was the third time in the past three months college basketball was gifted a game between two top-five teams. On Dec. 2, No. 2 Baylor coasted past No. 5 Illinois 82-69. Seventeen days later, top-ranked Gonzaga let No. 3 Iowa linger, but it was a 99-88 finish in favor of the still-unbeaten Bulldogs.

Michigan-Ohio State brought what those two games didn’t — a home-court element — in addition to the backdrop of both teams being projected No. 1 seeds.

A lack of fans didn’t suck the drama or viewing experience out of this one. It was a title-level competition. Michigan finished the game at a fiery 1.37 points per possession. (OSU finished just behind at 1.30.) For diehards of the sport, Michigan center Hunter Dickinson was no secret. He’s consistently been rated in the top five of CBS Sports’ Frosh Watch. But for a broader audience, today was something of an extended introduction. Though Ohio State had some missed second chances and two bad turnovers down the stretch, in the end, one team having the 7-footer (who looks like the guy from “Empire Records”) and the other team not having him seemed the difference. Dickinson had 22 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and at least four easy buckets against an OSU team that doesn’t have a player taller than 6-8.

“The difficult thing with them is they shoot it well from a variety of spots,” OSU coach Chris Holtmann told CBS Sports. “And Dickinson is a load.”

The teams combined to make 22 3-pointers and shot 49% from beyond the arc, in addition to Michigan making 57% of its 2-point shots and Ohio State 55% of its attempts inside the 3-point line. Offense, offense, offense — and not on account of poor defense.

Along the way, we got a wonderful potential Final Four preview. Both these teams are obviously good enough to make a run to the final weekend. What Michigan has managed to do after a 23-day pause is almost jaw-dropping. A week ago the Wolverines outscored Wisconsin 40-20 in the second half, shook off any flakes of rust in the process and won on the road. Thursday brought a workmanlike, never-in-doubt home W over Rutgers. Sunday was the best yet. U-M opened with an absurd 10-of-13 first-half shooting performance from beyond the arc. It finished 11-of-23, providing flashbacks of some of John Beilein’s best teams in the process.

Might this group be better than his 2013 or 2018 Final Four teams? At this point, that is on the table. Holtmann told me you can see some of Howard’s NBA influence in the way Michigan runs some of its offensive sets, and it’s what makes this team well-rounded.

Michigan legend Juwan Howard has his team playing at the highest level in just his second season.

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“I think what’s so impressive about them is you can just tell they have really taken on his personality,” Holtmann said. “Competitive, smart, tough-minded. I put this team on the same level, just about, as the really good Beilein teams and it’s impressive to see him do this [in his second season].”

In two seasons’ time, Howard has done what Beilein only pulled off once in 11 years: win at Ohio State. This was the Wolverines’ first win in Columbus in seven years and just their second since 2005. Michigan’s now 11-1 in the Big Ten, its best start in league play since 1976-77. Juwan Howard was 4 years old then.

The Big Ten is obviously going to have at least one of its teams earn a No. 1 seed. That will mark the first time since 2015 (Wisconsin) that the league’s been able to find the top line on Selection Sunday. Michigan is not yet a lock to be a No. 1 (games against No. 11 Iowa, No. 5 Illinois and the Big Ten Tournament all await), but it’s as close as it could possibly be to lock status on Feb. 21.

“They’re a complete team,” Holtmann said. “That’s why everyone’s so high on them and rightfully so.”

It’s one of the best stories in college hoops. There was a time recently when a job came open at Michigan. There was a man who, behind the scenes, pushed to be hired. He was a well-known man, an alumnus and someone who found success as a pro in both his playing and coaching career. Could a return to college work? That didn’t matter to fans at first because they were overjoyed at the prospect of having a beloved face back on campus, to have someone that’s tasted serious success at the highest levels opt to coach Michigan again. Even better: to beat Ohio State.

No, not Jim Harbaugh. Another JH: Juwan Howard. The University of Michigan’s men’s basketball team is dominant, relevant and rolling in ways that its football program can only imagine at this point.