When compared to the annual rivalry game on the football field, matchups between Ohio State and Michigan on the hardwood pale in comparison. Reasons for why that’s the case is subject for ongoing discussion.
But perhaps Sunday’s meeting between the two basketball programs – schedule for 1:30 p.m. in Value City Arena – will prove to be different. After all, there’s enough at stake for both Ohio State and Michigan to make bragging rights seem like a secondary issue.
For the No. 15 Buckeyes (12-3, 2-1 Big Ten), this game is about earning its first quality win of the season while proving they still belong in the conversation with college basketball’s elite. Coming into the contest, Ohio State has lost all three games it has played against ranked opponents.
For the No. 2 Wolverines (16-0, 3-0), this game is about staying alive as the only unbeaten team in college basketball while potentially building a two-game lead in the Big Ten standings, invaluable early positioning in perhaps the most competitive conference in the country.
Add in the rivalry angle, and the looming 40 minutes of basketball could end up being a large determining factor in the way the season plays out for both programs.
Now it feels like Ohio State-Michigan.
“It is Ohio State-Michigan,” junior point guard Aaron Craft said. “I don’t care what sport it is – it could be synchronized swimming – you always want to win that matchup. There’s always something a little extra you feel in your gut before the game.
“And you know they are going to come ready to play because they want to win just as bad as we do. There are a lot of great teams in the Big Ten and we have a lot of great rivalries going, but obviously Ohio State-Michigan may not get as much hype as it does for football, but it still means a lot.”
Maybe the luster of the basketball rivalry has faded because of Ohio State’s recent success in the matchup, winning seven of the last eight meetings and each of the last eight played in Value City Arena. But this season, the roles are reversed.
Michigan comes into the game as the giant poised to continue its already impressive run to start the season. Ohio State, looking to earn some much-needed confidence by knocking off a ranked foe for the first time this season, hopes it can be the first to do what none of the Wolverines’ previous 16 opponents could – beat them.
That won’t be an easy task, especially with the Wolverines being led by National Player of the Year candidate Trey Burke. The Columbus native has averaged 18.2 points and 7.3 assists per game this season as the Wolverines’ point guard.
The high school teammate of former OSU great Jared Sullinger, however, is only one of four Wolverines averaging double-digit scoring this season. Tim Hardaway Jr. averages 16.3 points per game, freshman Nik Stauskas 13.5 and Glenn Robinson III 12.6.
“(Burke) probes the defense exceptionally well and He's probably a much better athlete than people would give him credit for,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said. “So he’s very, very quick with the basketball. He gets from point A to point B, and you couple that with changing directions quickly, and that's what I think makes it a challenge.
“Right now, Michigan is just playing tremendous basketball. Sitting at 16-0, they’ve got a great rhythm to what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. You've got a couple of just great players that are really scoring.”
Though Ohio State is coming off its first road win of the season at Purdue on Tuesday, the Buckeyes are in a much more delicate state. The game before the matchup with the Boilermakers was a 74-55 blowout at Illinois, a blunder against yet another ranked opponent that has most of OSU’s followers questioning if this year’s team is equipped enough for another NCAA Tournament run.
Another loss to a ranked opponent would inflame those concerns. A win over the Wolverines, however, could be the statement of which Ohio State is in dire need.
“When one of the two undefeated teams (left in the country) come in here, you want to knock them off,” OSU junior forward Deshaun Thomas said. “That’s just the rivalry, too, with Ohio State and Michigan. It will also give us hopes for the Big Ten championship because we’d give them a loss.
“(A win) would be something special for us. We have had our ups and downs this year and it would give us confidence in the system and ourselves. If we come out, play as a team and give it our all, we’ll keep growing as a team.”
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