Ohio State may find themselves back in the top 10 of both major polls for the first time in a month, but that doesn't mean the road from here gets any easier. The last time Ohio State went on the road and faced a ranked team, they did so in That State Up North. History repeats itself as the Buckeyes face a daunting, uphill challenge Tuesday evening in the form of the third-ranked Michigan Wolverines.
The last time these two teams (which, in case you hadn't heard, aren't exactly fond of one another) made acquaintances with one another, Deshaun Thomas went for 20, Lenzelle Smith Jr. pulled down 10 rebounds, and the Buckeyes exploded out to a 28-8 lead which would ultimately provide enough padding for them to hold on late, 56-53. The Wolverines finished the game shooting 38% from the field (to OSU's 44%), but Michigan's 1-for-7 start from the field (along with five turnovers) proved to be their unraveling.
Of course, to Michigan's credit, the young Wolverines looked capable as ever as they chipped away at what should've been a spirit-killing deficit, and were a Trey Burke, well, trey away from potentially defeating their rivals on the road. The combination of starting point guard (and the well-documented Columbus native son) Burke along with running mate Tim Hardaway Jr were more than enough to shoot Michigan back into competition, and keep even the traditionally stout defensively Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr on their toes for the entirety of the second half. The two finished with a combined 27, rather down from their season-long collective average of 33.
Since then, Ohio State and Michigan's arcs have been simultaneously dissimilar and alike. Michigan bounced back to take down then 9th-ranked Minnesota, 83-75 on the road, walloped Purdue, 68-53, dominated Illinois on the road (who'd previously defeated Ohio State soundly in the same venue), 74-60, before crushing Northwestern at home, 68-46. This past Saturday night, before a national audience, the Wolverines traveled to Assembly Hall to face the third-ranked Indiana Hoosiers. In a game not terribly unlike the Ohio State one, Indiana burst out to a quick (and sizable lead), and Michigan battled back valiantly. Michigan strived to close that gap late, but Victor Oladipo was hell-bent on doing his best Vince Carter impersonation, Indiana's strong play never subsided, and in couple with the often uneven officiating of the Big Ten, the Wolverines wound up falling, 81-73.
The Buckeyes, on the other hand, followed the Michigan win (which you can't call an upset as the Buckeyes were Vegas favorited) by heading to East Lansing to take on Tom Izzo and the always tough Michigan State Spartans. Sparty provided more than adept to the challenge, and in one of the most damning examples of Ohio State's offensive limitations beyond Deshaun Thomas, a late Shannon Scott turnover doomed Ohio State as they fell, 59-56.
Since the Buckeyes' fourth loss of the season, they've wheeled off four straight victories. Wisconsin aside, none have been particularly aspiring, with the Buckeyes often matching flashes of brilliance with long sustained moments of playing down to their competition. It's hard to know what to make of Iowa, Penn State, and Nebraska. The latter seems fairly far away still, while Iowa is just barely on the outside looking in this year, and Thad Matta seems to think with a healthy Tim Frazier, Penn State could be tournament bound in 2013-2014. What we do now about Ohio State, however, is that if Deshaun Thomas is forced to carry an unreasonable amount of the load and no Johnny-on-the-spot makes himself known, the Buckeyes seldom win. This isn't new information.
Where we hope to introduce new data to our ever-growing sample comes in the form of how the winning their sparring matches, but somewhat untested since Michigan State, Buckeyes respond the first time they get punched. For all we know about the 20-2 Michigan Wolverines, how pissed off/angry the young team can play is still not quite a metric we've honed our ability to gauge just quite yet. Having lost in frustrating fashion in their last go-around to their nemesis and coming off a loss to the nation's new number one team, it's easy to imagine Michigan coming out, adrenaline pumping, sextet of high percentage field goal shooters a-firing. Like so many boxing matches between a would-be great and the not-far-behind-though-not-elite upstart that took them down in their last fight, the outcome may feel a bit predictable, however.
Trey Burke is still Trey Burke; if you've eliminated him from your National Player of the Year pedestal because Michigan lost a second time, you should probably hand in your ballot now. He's still very much averaging 18.2 points per game, 3.1 rebounds, and 7.2 assists, all the while shooting almost 49% from the field. Tim Hardaway Jr. is shooting at nearly the same clip while averaging 15.6 ppg and 4.8 rbg. And we haven't even gotten to Canadian wunderkind Nik Stauskas. While pessimistic Michigan fans may think he shoots too emotively (or something,) the shots from the field fall at an even higher rate than both of his predecessors, and he also averages 48% shooting from beyond the arc. Where as Ohio State often is forced to wonder where their second scoring option will come from, Michigan's more concerned about who's going to be scorer No. 4 du jour.
The forwards remain the same as in the last matchup – and just as dangerous as ever. Glenn Robinson III continues to adjust to life as a college player. He's coming off arguably the worst game of his career, and with the previous 3 not indicating any kind of freshman wall being run into, it's likely he'll be smelling blood early if he's let off defensively in the least. Jordan Morgan (who's still getting over a lingering ankle issue), Mitch McGary, and Jon Horford provide the nightmare fuel for Evan Ravenel and Amir Williams. Morgan and McGary combined for 11 and 9 the last time against the Buckeyes bigs – and to be honest, that was probably on the low side.
With the Buckeyes' hands more than full, the beat dead horse lack of a second scorer may prove to be the least of the Buckeyes' worries. "Can lightning strike twice and can they sustain four minutes of unyielding defense against one of the nation's most prolific offenses?," probably caused Thad Matta to lose sleep last night (and should be on the minds of those about to take the court, as well). Well, besides the blinding uniforms and highlighter Adidas sneakers. It's worth remembering, however, that the Buckeyes will answer with abominations of their own.
Deshaun Thomas made it a point in a media session Monday morning to emphasize that the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry was "just as important as the one in football." He might not be wrong, but with National Signing Day '13 not even 24 hours away, it'll be hard-pressed for many of even the most ardent Buckeyes' attentions to not be divided. It might prove to be the best if expectations with respect to a team like Michigan regressing to the mean prove accurate.
The Wolverines aren't one of the best teams in the country by accident. Their performance in Bloomington was more likely than not the exception as opposed to the rule. With John Beilein and company practicing sets to get Aaron Craft away from Trey Burke, if the Wolverines are the least bit successful, it could be a long night for the Buckeyes. If they're particularly ardent on the offensive end, it could be even worse.
Holy #@(%. Michigan 70 - Ohio State 61