Ohio State-Michigan basketball rivalry emerging from football’s shadow

The Ohio State-Michigan basketball rivalry will never be more popular on the national stage than its football counterpart. 

“The Game” will be always the most important stage for both athletic programs. That said, the football game wasn’t played in 2020 year because of COVID-19.

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So, at least for one year, basketball offers an alternative with the first top-five showdown between the teams. No. 3 Michigan (16-1) and No. 4 Ohio State (19-4) at Value City Arena in Columbus on Sunday in a huge Big Ten showdown. 

It’s a nod to what has become a reality since 2010: The basketball rivalry between the Buckeyes and Wolverines is more competitive, even if it will always struggle to be more compelling. Which rivalry is more complete right now? For the foreseeable future?  

Sporting News takes a closer look.  

Basketball is more competitive  

This isn’t even an argument at the moment. Since 2010, Ohio State is 9-1 against Michigan in football. Take that back to 2000, and the Buckeyes are 17-3 against the Wolverines.  

The gap between the schools is significant. Ohio State’s margin of victory in the past eight wins is 14.4 points. That swelled to 26 points in the past two meetings, and the Buckeyes were 30-point favorites in 2020 before the game was canceled because of COVID-19.  

Basketball has not been nearly as one-sided. Ohio State opened the 2010s with five straight victories against Michigan in basketball, but the Buckeyes hold a slim 8-7 advantage in the past 15 meetings. The average margin of victory in those 15 games is 9.3 points. There has been only one blowout of 20-plus points, and seven of the games have been decided by 10 points or fewer.

Basketball is by far the more competitive stage. Until Michigan offers a response on the football side, this will continue to be the case.  

Football is more compelling  

Does that make football more captivating? 

After all, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is 0-5 against the Buckeyes, and the inability to beat either Urban Meyer or Ryan Day has generated countless storylines in the College Football Playoff era.  

It’s still every bit as compelling as basketball when you consider the Wolverines and Buckeyes have played three top-10 showdowns since Harbaugh arrived in 2015. The 30-27 double-overtime thriller between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan was one of the best games of the CFP era given what was at stake. The Buckeyes and Wolverines have gone in two different directions since “The Spot.”   

Will Sunday’s basketball game between the Buckeyes and Wolverines carry that kind of weight? It is the third top-10 showdown between the teams in the rivalry’s history ( football has 11 to choose from ), and it will carry weight when picking a No. 1 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

At this point, however, those football games still carry more weight. Next year’s game will be huge too, especially with the one-year hiatus.  

Basketball is more complete  

Both sports have thrived when the coaches are in place at both schools. 

The basketball rivalry ticked up in the matchups between Ohio State’s Thad Matta and Michigan’s John Beilein in the 2010s. The Wolverines and Buckeyes played seven straight games from 2012 to 2014 in which both teams were ranked.   

Michigan had a 4-3 advantage in those games. The Buckeyes reached the Final Four in 2012 and Elite Eight in 2013. Michigan reached the NCAA championship game in 2013 and Elite Eight in 2014. Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Michigan’s Trey Burke were consensus All-Americans. These games had all the ingredients for a major college basketball rivalry. 

That momemtum continues in 2021 with third-year coach Chris Holtmann and second-year coach Juwan Howard. Ohio State and Michigan feels like it did in 1991-92, when the Jim Jackson-led Ohio State teams clashed with the Fab Five. Michigan lost both regular-season meetings, but Howard was on the team that beat Ohio State 75-71 in overtime in the Elite Eight.  

That was the most compelling game in the history of the basketball rivalry, and Sunday’s top-five matchup offers a taste of what could be for several years to come.  

Can basketball deliver in the long term? 

What will the future hold? 

The basketball rivalry might have a little more to offer right now, and that will continue to be the case until Michigan’s football team breaks Ohio State’s stranglehold on that rivalry. It won’t be easy knowing that the Buckeyes have won four straight Big Ten championships heading into 2021.  

Harbaugh, who received an extension this offseason, will have to lead the Wolverines past Day, who has led the Buckeyes to a pair of CFP appearances in his first two seasons. Holtmann also is 2-0 head-to-head against Howard, and it will be about how many times the basketball teams can play on this stage in future seasons.  

A top-five showdown is huge. But a Big Ten tournament championship game or NCAA Tournament matchup would raise that rivalry to new heights. That Elite Eight matchup between the Wolverines and Buckeyes remains the most talked about basketball game between the schools because the stage was rare.  

Big Ten basketball rivalries are different, too. Some old-school Ohio State fans might consider Indiana the biggest basketball rival. Michigan fans look at Michigan State as the biggest game on the schedule. 

That is another reason football has the constant edge. The football teams could just as easily play in another top-10 or top-five showdown in 2021 or 2022. 

There hasn’t been a more monumental contest between the two schools since the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in 2006, which Ohio State won 42-39. Can Harbaugh and Day push that rivalry back to that spot? Imagine if the Buckeyes and Wolverines ever played in a CFP semifinal — which might have been the case in 2006 had that been the format.  

It would take a Final Four basketball matchup between Michigan and Ohio State to match that. 

Can the schools deliver this year?

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