On Sunday afternoon, Michigan and Ohio State squared off in what has become one of the best rivalry games in the Big Ten and one of the more significant on the national stage. This matchup may not have had as much sizzle as the last few years, but it was an exciting game where Michigan was able to upset its arch-rival at home. But what helped push Michigan over the top?
Of course, no player or specific matchup decides a game, but two defensive decisions that I found incredibly intriguing in this game were the ways Michigan decided to defend D'Angelo Russell and how Ohio State opted - or didn't opt - to defend Zak Irvin. When push comes to shove, one can make a pretty good argument that Irvin and Russell are the best (available) offensive players on their teams and, as such, they have a significant impact on any opponent's gameplan. Let's take a look at both.
Michigan's Strategy For D'Angelo Russell
If you haven't realized how good D'Angelo Russell has been this season, then you either haven't been watching the Big Ten or don't know much about basketball. Russell has simply been exceptional. He has been a great offensive threat, can find open teammates, and is more than adequate on the defensive end of the floor. He's a defensive nightmare and a challenge for even the best defensive teams to contain.
On Sunday, Michigan opted to battle elite freshman Russell with ... a freshman. This probably raised a few eyebrows when it happened, but Michigan decided to primarily use a man defense with true freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (MAAR) having a primary defensive assignment on Russell. The Wolverines could have used other options like Kameron Chatman, Aubrey Dawkins, or Zak Irvin, but opted for MAAR.
To an outsider, this looks like a big mismatch. Russell leads the conference in offensive rating for players who have used at least 28% of their team's possessions, is top 5 in the conference in assist rate, and is shooting 42.% from long range this season. Russell is not the type of player that relies on just one skill to get the job done. You have to stop him from getting into the lane, stop him from getting open looks, stop him from finding teammates, and most importantly, you have to stop him in transition.
Perhaps the deadliest part of Russell's game is his ability to move the ball and make plays in transition. Sure, stopping Russell's transition game is kind of like telling someone swimming in a pond full of hammerheads not to worry because the great white is the "most dangerous" shark, but it is a huge part of Russell's game. He has the ability to find opportunities on the run and strikes before a defense can get set.
MAAR is a great matchup here because he is one of only a few players who have shown that he can slow down opponents in transition. When Michigan traveled to East Lansing to face the Spartans, Michigan State tore them apart in transition. The only player who made any significant impact in this area for Michigan was MAAR. He got out, pressured ballhandlers, and let his teammates get set on defense. On Sunday, he did the same thing.
There is no doubt that MAAR did not play a perfect game on Sunday, but he had a huge impact in slowing down Russell and preventing him from getting open looks. On top of this, he did a great job of fighting through screens and keeping Russell in front of him. Russell still got 16 points, but his 86 offensive rating, 5 turnovers, and 2 for 6 from 3PT range are all signs of MAAR's impact. He didn't give Russell the easy looks and it was huge in slowing him down.
Michigan didn't win only because of the way they defended Russell, but Ohio State needed a better game from Russell to go on the road and beat a rival. Thanks to MAAR taking away some of Russell's favorite looks, the Wolverines gave themselves a fighting chance.
Ohio State's Strategy For Zak Irvin
On the other side of the court, perhaps the most interesting defensive assignment choice was Ohio State's decision on how to guard Michigan's Zak Irvin. In fact, I'm sure there are still a lot of Ohio State fans out there on Monday and Tuesday wondering "what if" about Thad Matta's decisions regarding Zak Irvin.
In a bit of a surprising move, when the game started on Sunday, the Buckeyes opted to have Jae'Sean Tate start on Irvin instead of potential All-Big Ten defensive team member Sam Thompson. Ohio State has two potential All-Big Ten defensive team members with Thompson and Shannon Scott, but Thompson matches up much better with a guy like Irvin than he does in the backcourt, where Scott does his best work.
Following the game, Matta said they opted to start with Tate on Irvin based on some early game Michigan sets they had seen on tape and because they thought Tate would work better if Irvin was playing off the ball. This is certainly an reasonable strategy and one that Ohio State fans may not have liked, but there is no doubt that off the ball, Tate has the athleticism and speed to keep up with Irvin. Tate is also a really solid rebounder. Irvin is not any great rebounder, but he does have enough size to hit the boards, so this could minimize that threat as well.
However, if Irvin was handling the ball, Tate doesn't have the ability to use his hands like a Thompson, stay with guys on a first step, and keep his feet in front of opponents toward the hoop. When Irvin started handling the ball early, he was able to get some nice looks and was able to create space against a bigger defender like Tate. If Thompson had been on Irvin, maybe you don't see this, or at least not as much.
Eventually, Ohio State opted to rotate between the two players, but Irvin made enough plays early to dig Ohio State a hole that they couldn't overcome. Irvin certainly deserves credit for driving the ball effectively, hitting his open looks, and finding open teammates, but the decision of Matta may have played a factor in this. If Thompson had started on Irvin and Michigan had to move him off the ball, maybe the Wolverines start slower.
Regardless of the decision, it is interesting to see how Ohio State made a move to try and minimize Irvin's ability to play off the ball and he and Michigan were able to attack the Buckeyes for their decision.
This game was not decided on how Michigan guarded D'Angelo Russell and how Ohio State guarded Zak Irvin, but there is no doubt that both decisions certainly played a factor. One of the most exciting things about the Michigan and Ohio State rivalry right now is the fact that both teams have really good coaches and you can see their impact not only in these matchups, but across the floor.