COLUMBUS, Ohio — Juwan Howard stood on the word “Buckeyes” on the baseline of Value City Arena, pointed with his left hand at the small collection of Michigan fans in the stands and pounded his chest with his right. Over and over. This game was worth a little celebration.
The scoreboard overhead said Michigan 92, Ohio State 87. It was the best game of the 2020-21 college basketball season, a shot-making festival of frothy rivalry intensity that bobbed back and forth until the Wolverines pulled away (slightly) in the final minutes. There were 18 lead changes, and for the first 39 minutes, the largest lead was six points, neither team ever led by double digits. For a sport that sometimes fails to deliver a viewer-friendly product that resonates with casual fans, this was a gorgeous, close, dramatic showcase game.
It established not just the winner but both teams as viable national championship contenders. In a season that for weeks has looked like a Gonzaga-Baylor match race, make room for Michigan (16-1) and Ohio State (18-5). They’re legit and perfectly capable of being in Indianapolis for the entire duration of the NCAA Tournament. (Maybe Illinois, too.)
And, just in case that wasn’t enough, how about a little in-game cell phone intrigue? TV viewers noted Michigan director of operations Chris Hunter on his phone in the closing seconds while on the bench, which is against NCAA rules. The Michigan explanation: the person in charge of delivering the Wolverines’ postgame meal kept calling, so Hunter finally answered. Per NCAA rules, the penalty for in-game cell phone use is a two-shot technical foul. If that had been called and impacted the ending of the game, Ann Arbor would be on fire right now.
(Free advice for Hunter: just turn the phone off until the final buzzer.)
If we can get Michigan-Ohio State II next month in the Big Ten tournament, and maybe Michigan-Ohio State III sometime in the Big Dance, I think we’d all sign up for that. The more we see this kind of college hoops, the better.
“Both teams were really good offensively,” Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann said. “Really made shots.”
How good was the offense in this game? Ohio State shot 55 percent from two-point range, 50 percent from three-point range, 92 percent from the foul line—and lost. This is the first time a Holtmann-coached Buckeyes team has made 50 percent of its threes (11 of 22) and lost.
On the other side, Michigan made 11 of its first 14 threes—a ridiculous clip—and all that got the Wolverines was a four-point lead at the time, 54-50. Usually, that’s enough to bury the opposition. Howard’s team had 19 assists and only seven turnovers—just one in the second half. But Ohio State kept answering, carving up what Ken Pomeroy’s analytics say is a top-15 defense.
“Damn right I anticipated a challenge,” Howard said. “Ohio State’s a great team. … I’m not happy with our defense, but I’ll take it with a victory. I’ve been on the other side and had a bus ride home, and it’s not a good feeling.”
This was the first Michigan victory in Columbus in seven seasons, making it a win worth thumping the chest about. And given the lopsided nature of the football rivalry in favor of the scarlet and gray, beating the Buckeyes will only elevate Howard’s already sky-high approval rating.
After spending his adult life in the NBA as a player and assistant coach, nobody was sure how well the former Fab Five star would do as a college head coach. He’s been sensational, given the results both on the floor and in the recruiting arena. Howard has what’s ranked the No. 1 recruiting class coming in next season, but none of that group may make as big an immediate impact as current freshman Hunter Dickinson.
Dickinson is an old freshman—he turned 20 in November—with the beard to match. He was as immovable as a water buffalo around the basket Sunday, scoring 22 points and pulling down nine rebounds. If the present and future of big men involves floating around the perimeter, well, Dickinson is a powerful throwback to the days of low-post dominance.
“We try to get him in his spots,” said guard Eli Brooks. “He’s proven he can score on anybody.”
He certainly could score on Ohio State’s smaller post players. E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young are strong and tough, but they’re also listed at 6’7” and 6’8”, respectively. Dickinson battered them into submission in the second half.
“They had a 6-7 guy guarding a 7-2 guy,” said Michigan's Chaundee Brown, essentially saying that the strategy of throwing it inside was a no-brainer.
Ohio State chose not to double-team Dickinson. Given the shooters Michigan can array around the perimeter and the fact that the Wolverines were scalding from the perimeter for the first 20-plus minutes, that seemed like the prudent poison to pick. But it still was lethal.
“I was pretty happy,” Dickinson said of Ohio State’s defensive gameplan. “I don’t get those opportunities much. It was kind of fun for me to go one-on-one with my opponent.”
Saturday night, Dickinson did what he has done several times this season—sat down with Howard for some individual film study. His offensive production had slipped in recent weeks, averaging just 8.2 points in the previous five games. Howard, who was a formidable low-post scorer in his Fab Five days and as a pro, is an ideal tutor.
“Whenever I come to him for help, he’s there for me 100 percent,” Dickinson said.
“A lot of guys don’t want to be coached,” Howard said. “He wants to be coached.”
Dickinson doesn’t mind coaching, and he certainly doesn’t mind banging. There were bodies splattered around the floor on several occasions, with neither team backing away from the battle.
“This is the Big Ten, baby!” Howard said, clapping his hands in relish. “Very physical conference.”
Howard strikes a serene pose on the sideline much of the time, which is how you know this game was something extra. When Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. was granted an injury timeout at one point in the second half after being poked in the eye, Howard wound up at the center jump circle yelling at the officials. Holtmann joined him in the area, and there was plenty of jawing going on.
Howard said he and Holtmann were yelling at separate refs, not at each other, but there did appear to be some additional dialog between the coaches. But any contentiousness was left behind when the game was over. Fists were bumped between coaches and players in mutual respect, and in acknowledgment that they were part of a special game between two teams capable of winning it all. There were no losers here Sunday, in a showcase classic the sport needed.