With Duke’s loss to North Carolina State yesterday afternoon, one team remained undefeated in all of college basketball. That team was the Michigan Wolverines. With a certain bump to number one assured with a win Sunday afternoon, the Ohio State Buckeyes stopped that movement dead in its tracks. The Buckeyes turned in a dominant defensive performance, led by as many as 21 points, and held off a late charge from the Wolverines as they won on their home floor in front of a raucous sellout crowd 56-53 in a knockout, dragdown Big Ten battle.
You have to start with Ohio State’s defense, which was simply phenomenal. Michigan was the #1 offense in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency heading into the game, and my colleague TD, whose opinion I respect very much, anticipated Michigan dropping 80 points on the Buckeyes with their balanced, efficient attack. I myself figured this would be a classic Big Ten game with shooting percentages around 40% and a score in the low 60s1. The Buckeye defense, which is 15th-ranked in the same adjusted defensive efficiency rating, held the Wolverines to 3 points for nearly the first eight minutes of the game, in single digits until six minutes before the half, and 22 points at the half.
It starts with Aaron Craft, who was the team’s most valuable player in the second straight game. His defense on Trey Burke (4-of-13 shooting, 15 points, 4 turnovers) was game-changing. Coach Thad Matta said of his point guard, “He had a unique way about him today before the game. I didn’t say anything to him because I knew he was going to play at the level we needed him to in order to win. During a timeout he even said, ‘stop helping, I’ll do the job.’” As Burke tried to do too much, the junior point was more than happy to stay glued to the Columbus Northland product and force tough, contested shots. Ohio State not only shut Michigan down offensively, but they moved the ball quickly and were able to pour in points against Michigan in the halfcourt. OSU shot 12-of-17 to start as Thomas and Craft were off and running. The Buckeyes led at one point in the first half 28-7 as the Bucks had the place rocking. With eight Michigan turnovers fueling 16 points for Ohio State in the first, the Buckeyes were cashing in on transition hoops and stellar ball movement.
One of the players really coming into his own lately has been Sam Thompson. After being a “hot potato” player on offense last year as he played minutes off the bench due to his defense and athleticism, he’s come a long way in year two. Today, it was his nine points that included a three-pointer, two breakaway dunks, and an alley-oop interception. His defense on Wolverine freshman Nik Stauskas, who was held scoreless, missing three shots in 23 minutes after averaging 13.5 points per game and shooting over 52% from three-point range, was impeccable. Lenzelle Smith Jr. held Tim Hardaway Jr. four points under his average with 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Hardaway made just 1-of-6 three points, and the Wolverines who shoot it at a 41% clip on the year from deep made just 6-of-20 overall.
It wasn’t smooth sailing, however, in the last twenty minutes. There were definitely some certain head-scratching moments. As their offense stalled with the Michigan 1-3-1 zone deployed late in the first half, there was no sight of fourth-leading scorer (8.2 ppg) LaQuinton Ross, who played just three minutes in the first half. Amir Williams had 6 points and 4 rebounds and played just 11 minutes even though he was the game’s starter as Evan Ravenel saw most of the time at center. “At times we lost our composure tonight and during a timeout I had to remind them of Will Ferrell’s‘ELE – everybody love everybody,’ but we pulled out the victory and I’m proud of them,” Matta jokingly said of his team’s composure.
The Wolverines tied it up at 46 on a Glenn Robinson III three with 5:59 to play. From there, the Buckeyes went into the post and scored on three straight possessions. Two of those came from Evan Ravenel with one from Deshaun Thomas, who led the team with a quiet 20 point effort. Likewise, the Buckeyes fended Michigan off, forcing six missed shots over the next four possessions with many of them being three point attempts. The Buckeyes then tried to give it away as up four, Lenzelle Smith Jr. had a lazy pass picked off for a breakaway dunk, and Thomas fired an ugly, contorted shot with 20 seconds left on the shot clock that gave the Wolverines the ball with 48 seconds left down just two.
In the most thrilling possession of the game, Trey Burke sat out on the right wing with Aaron Craft closely guarding him. As the shot clock closed in on zero, Burke rocked Craft back and forth trying to look for a lane. Aaron Craft would not budge on this possession, so Burke fired a three with Craft leaping out after him. The ball rattled halfway in and bounced out with Lenzelle Smith Jr. grabbing his tenth defensive rebound of the game and all but sealing a Buckeye victory with his two made free throws. It was fitting that the game-deciding shot came on defense for the Bucks.
With the win, Thad Matta runs his record to 17-3 against archrival Michigan and a perfect 9-0 at home. While it’s foolish to think that the rivalry is a perfect transition from football to basketball, there’s definitely a little extra oomph there for the fan base. As my sister and I sat in line for the first come, first serve student tickets, we were amazed at the early turnout. We arrived around 10:30, and I then entered the longest line that I’ve ever stood in for a Buckeye basketball game, walking all the way back to the end of a line that wrapped around a quarter of The Schott and down to the intersection of Lane Avenue and Fred Taylor Drive. By the time the gates opened 90 minutes before tip and we slowly trickled in, there were several hundred behind us in line as well. Of the 1,400 student tickets, two-thirds of them had to be there at the time the gates opened. That’s a phenomenal turnout, and the energy definitely translated into the arena. With the exception of the top ten matchup with Wisconsin (OSU #1, Wisky #10) two years back2, this could have been the most vocal I was during a game and the most the crowd fired up the players.
The Big Ten grind doesn’t stop, however. This weekend, the Buckeyes head up to East Lansing to play the 18th-ranked Spartans. Win at home, beat the bottom half teams on the road, steal one or two against the top half of the conference at their place. With such tough environments and a cut-throat league with six ranked teams, that seems to be the recipe for competing in the Big Ten.
(Photo: Mike Munden/AP)
- I called 61-60 Bucks, for what it’s worth. [↩]
- This was the game three weeks after the “Deal With It” Bo Ryan quote and where Sullinger was allegedly spit on during the court storm in Madison. The need for the win to clinch an outright Big Ten title was erased the evening before the game as Purdue lost to Iowa. [↩]