Few things define Midwestern sports better than the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan.
There is, of course, a deep hatred there—after all, it is arguably the greatest rivalry in all of sports—but there is also a mutual respect of each other's accomplishments and abilities and an understanding that the two programs will always be joined at the hip.
When the Buckeyes and Wolverines square off Sunday, families and friends are often fragmented, bragging rights are on the line and a certain sense of smug satisfaction awaits the winner. Heck, there’s so much crazed emotion around the game that Ohio State students annually jump in a freezing lake because they think it will help their squad beat “That Team Up North.”
Anyone intimately familiar with this rivalry knows by now that I am describing the football clash that happens every November. However, that doesn’t mean these sentiments just disappear when the Buckeyes and Wolverines meet up on the hardwood.
That is exactly what will happen Sunday in Columbus as the No. 2-ranked Michigan basketball team will test its mettle and undefeated record on the road against No. 15 Ohio State.
With so much on the line, there will undoubtedly be tons of pressure surrounding the game. But who is under the most pressure to succeed in round one between these two teams?
Well, Michigan's Trey Burke will certainly be in the spotlight when he takes the floor. The Columbus native grew up wanting to be a Buckeye and will be asked to carry the load and live up to the hype against his hometown team.
Burke has been arguably the best point guard in all of college basketball in the early going, but two of his three career matchups against Ohio State have ended poorly for him both in the stat sheet and on the scoreboard, including his only trip back home.
Then there’s the guy that will be guarding Burke for most of the game. Aaron Craft has become such a defensive force in his two-plus years as the ring leader for the Buckeyes that it is almost a monumental letdown to the home crowd when he allows a basket.
Considering he will going up against one of the best players in the entire nation, preventing any type of score or offensive success is certainly too much to ask. Throw in the fact that there are plenty of card-carrying members of Buckeye Nation that are still upset that coach Thad Matta didn’t recruit Burke to take over Craft’s spot and Craft will undoubtedly be feeling the pressure Sunday.
Craft’s teammate Deshaun Thomas is the heir apparent to a chain of superstars at Ohio State that has included the likes of Jared Sullinger, Evan Turner, Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. over the past few years. While he has admirably carried the Buckeyes at times this year, it has to be wearing on him that his team is struggling so much against quality competition.
Thomas must score early and often if his team is to have a chance. In fact, he may realistically have to put up 30 or more points. Hope that’s not asking too much out of him.
But Thomas won’t be the only player on the floor with a score-first mentality that will be under pressure to put the ball in the basket. I expect Ohio State’s defensive game plan to revolve around Burke, meaning that Tim Hardaway Jr. will have plenty of open opportunities.
If the game is close (and considering it is in Columbus, I imagine it will be) Hardaway may have to hit a big shot or two for the Wolverines down the stretch. He may not shoot more than Burke does over the course of the game, but the shots he does throw up will have major implications on who walks away with a victory.
Ultimately though, the answer to the question of who is under the most pressure heading into Sunday’s game is rather simple. It is Matta and the entire Ohio State team as a whole.
The Buckeyes need a big win more than almost any other team in the country. They are 0-3 against quality competition, plummeting in the polls and the future competition doesn’t get much easier. What’s more, depending on how the trip to Purdue shapes up this week, they could be staring at a 1-3 start to conference play.
Ohio State was ranked in the top five to start the season, which implicitly means that it was considered a serious national title contender by those with a say in the rankings. Another big game loss, especially one at home, would probably drop the Scarlet and Gray out of the rankings completely.