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January 14, 2013

The Wolverines and the Buckeye slump

There is no denying the Michigan basketball team's recent resurgence, finally escaping the decades-long doldrums of NCAA sanctions and mediocrity to flare back into the national spotlight with one of the most talented teams in program history.

The Wolverines, through their first 16 games, looked nearly unstoppable. But there's one river of struggle the team has still yet to forge, and you might as well call it the Olentangy.

Ohio State - especially when the teams play in Columbus - has been a constant hindrance to Michigan. The Wolverines are 6-24 in the last 30 meetings and haven't won at Ohio State since 2003.

Thad Matta, the Ohio State coach since 2004, has bested Michigan 17 times in 20 meetings.

"That's a testament to Coach and the way he is able to get his players ready to go for this big type of game," Ohio State junior point guard Aaron Craft said after the Buckeyes held off Michigan, 56-53, Sunday. "He does a phenomenal job of getting us ready through the week and making sure our minds are into it on gameday. And that's why he's one of the better coaches in the country, and we're fortunate to play for him."

Of course, this Michigan team was a slightly different than previous squads. The Wolverines came into the game with an unblemished 16-0 record and a chance to climb to the top spot of the national rankings.

"There's always satisfaction in denying Michigan the No. 1 spot in the country," senior forward Evan Ravenel said with a smile after the game.

National pundits turned to Sunday's game to watch the hyped individual matchup between Craft and sophomore point guard Trey Burke, who has garnered mention as a possible Naismith National Player Of The Year candidate.

Burke finished the game with 15 points, four assists and a disappointing four turnovers, the most he had coughed up since Nov. 23 (five vs. Kansas State).

In the 11 games between Kansas State and Ohio State, Burke had dished out 82 assists to just 12 turnovers, a mind-boggling number.

"Any time you get to play against a great player like him, you always get a little more incentive to go out there," Craft said. "As a team, I think we did a great job of stepping up to that challenge defensively.

"He's still learning. He's a sophomore, and the sky's the limit for him, at this point. He continues to get better, and he does a good job of blocking out the distractions and just playing the game. He has a phenomenal team around him, and he's doing a great job of getting those guys involved and not just try to shoot the ball as much as he did last year."

The Buckeyes had five days in between a 74-64 win at Purdue and the Michigan game to prepare for the Wolverines' potent offensive system. And they used that time to profusely scout Michigan.

"Team defense was the key," said junior forward Deshaun Thomas, who finished with a game-high 20 points. "We came out with juice and toughness. We learned our scouting report really well, and we knew everyone's execution and what they did for Michigan. We were together on defense. We came out with heart, and we played hard."

"Our transition defense was unbelievable," added Ravenel. "That's a big thing we focused on, not letting them get any easy buckets in transition. We let up a little bit at the end of the first half, but that was the big key for us. Challenging shots. They have three really good scorers in [Nik] Stauskas, [Tim] Hardaway and Burke. Really good perimeter scoring, and if they got it down low, we wanted to be tough and physical. We did that pretty well."

Ohio State defended Stauskas particularly well, holding the freshman sharpshooter to zero points for the first time all season.

"He is a great player, and he can really shoot the ball," Craft said. "Getting those early fouls on him really took him out of his rhythm. It was a team effort, and our big guys did a great job of getting out and hedging on some of those screens and things. We told our guards that we had to chase hard, try to make him put it on the floor and make some decisions. Don't give him anything easy, quickly. The best defense was having him on the bench and not being able to shoot anything."


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