It’s not uncommon to see Ohio State and Michigan play in the Big Ten Tournament. This time it’s a role reversal, though.
From 2010-12, the Buckeyes topped the Wolverines in all three conference tournament meetings. There was Evan Turner’s answered prayer and a 22-point beatdown when Aaron Craft harassed Trey Burke into submission.
|Michigan (24-7, 15-3)||Bankers Life Fieldhouse||1:40 p.m.||CBS (CBS Sports)|
To some, it’s just another game. In the grand scheme, one game has little impact on a full season. But when the jerseys read “Ohio State” and “Michigan,” the stakes are raised.
“It’s Michigan. There’s no other team we’ll pull together and have energy for more than those guys,” senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “They’re just as good as anyone in the country. We’re looking forward to it.”
In one meeting this season, Ohio State fell at home 70-60. It was the Buckeyes’ largest margin of defeat. They led with five minutes to go before faltering.
“We know they’re a tough team,” junior guard Shannon Scott said. “Back at our place, we had them down early in the game and they were more physical than us, had more toughness than us. With that in the back of our head, we know we’ve got to have our A-game to win the game.”
The so-called experts didn’t forecast Ohio State’s struggles this season. And they certainly didn’t believe Michigan would win the Big Ten championship by three games. Not after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA, then Mitch McGary due to a back injury.
But that’s exactly what the Wolverines did, overcoming obstacle after obstacle in the process. They haven’t appeared in the Big Ten Tournament title game since the inaugural edition in 1998. That streak will come to an end with a victory over archrival Ohio State on Saturday.
“At this time of year, it really comes down to playing your best basketball,” sophomore guard Nik Stauskas said. “That’s what we did last year. I think we were very fortunate to start playing our best basketball in March.”
There are several reasons why Michigan has been able to continue its winning ways. One is head coach John Beilein’s ability to outcoach the opposition. The other is Stauskas, the Big Ten Player of the Year. The sophomore, a projected first-round pick in June’s NBA Draft, is averaging 17.4 points. He’s fashioned himself as one of the top big-shot takers in the country.
But a year ago, Stauskas had one of his worst games in Michigan’s exit from the Big Ten Tournament.
“My shot was off. I couldn’t get things to fall,” Stauskas said. “This year, I think my confidence has been pretty high the whole time. My teammates and coaches have put a lot of trust in me and they keep giving me confidence, even when I’m a little down on myself.”
In Friday’s win over Illinois, Stauskas scored 19 points but was only 4-of-12 from the field and 2-of-10 from long range. The one-point win featured a 13-point second-half blown lead by the Wolverines. Jordan Morgan made the game-winning basket in the closing 10 seconds.
“I was looking to be aggressive and raised up to shoot and man, the guy guarding me was still chasing me and the big was chasing me too and [Morgan] rolled down the lane and he was wide open,” Stauskas said. “I hit him with the ball and he laid it in.”
The book on defending Stauskas isn’t a secret. He can be neutralized against speedy defenders and teams often have to deny him the ball. If it gets in his hands, chances are he’ll make a shot. The Canadian made 71 three-pointers during the regular season, converting 46 percent of his attempts.
Next week, Stauskas will become one of the faces of the NCAA Tournament. He’ll do so having already duplicated Michigan’s regular-season success from last year. But it’s the postseason that matters.
“It’s exciting,” Stauskas said. “This is what I’ve worked hard for. I’ve wanted to lead this team. I’ve had dreams of doing this my whole life. So the fact that I’m here is exciting. I can’t wait to take advantage of this opportunity.”
In case you haven’t noticed, Ohio State refuses to panic. Down 10 to Notre Dame in the final minute, no problem. Trailing Nebraska by 18 in the second half, big deal. The Buckeyes’ uneven season continues to surprise those who know inconsistency is coming.
A team that looked dead just two weeks ago will now enter the NCAA Tournament with momentum, even if it loses to Michigan. The Buckeyes have won nine of their last 12 games with four coming against NCAA Tournament teams.
"They stayed together, they fought and they clawed and found ways to pick up the defensive intensity and not just the full-court,” head coach Thad Matta said. "I think everyone's going to point to the full-court stuff, but our half-court defense was very good. You look at the buckets Nebraska had to make and they were incredible plays. I kept telling our guys, 'if they can keep making those, we're probably not gonna win the game.'”
Every flaw has been exposed, but it doesn’t matter. Ohio State’s effort is never lacking and its defensive prowess bodes well in a physical conference. But it’s the proper mindset that sets the Buckeyes apart. Few teams have the gumption to come back from at least 10 down three times in the same season.
“That was the thing we talked about before the game and all through this season when we were going through our stretch when we lost games – don't panic,” junior forward LaQuinton Ross said. “We sat down and had a team meeting about some things that we need to change on the team and one of the first things we put up there was don’t panic. We didn’t panic in this situation and were able to come back.”
When you can fall back on a press the caliber of Ohio State’s, the picture becomes clearer on why it doesn’t panic. This is the same team that was able to complete a 10-point comeback in less than 60 seconds.
Erasing an 18-point deficit with nearly 14 minutes remaining may have seemed like an average practice for the Buckeyes. It barely took them a minute to trim the deficit in half, and during the decisive 41-19 run, Ohio State created seven turnovers.
Thrilling come-from-behind victories are enjoyable for fans and media, but players would prefer an easier day at the office.
“Hopefully it’ll be different [Saturday],” Ross said.
A similarity Matta is hoping for – however unrealistic – is the continued dependence of Amedeo Della Valle. He tallied 12 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals in what will likely remain the most memorable game of his career for eternity.
Della Valle’s heroics harken back to the days of Charles Bass, who became a folk hero during the 2003 Big Ten Tournament. Matta inserted the Italian sharpshooter into the lineup simply to try and juggle the offense. What he got in return was a spark that not many expected.
“Amedeo plays with no ego,” Matta said. “He just plays with a love for the game and just did a tremendous job for us. His defensive presence was as good – it was the difference in the game.”
- LaQuinton Ross is averaging 22.5 points and 14 rebounds in the Big Ten Tournament. He had a career-high 26 points in a win over Nebraska and a career-high 15 rebounds in a victory over Purdue.
- Aaron Craft is averaging 14 points. He's totaled 11 assists and four steals.