Apparently gravity took the day off Sunday in Columbus, because Trey Burke’s go-ahead three-point attempt with 17 seconds remaining was three-fourths of the way down before rimming out, virtually ending Michigan’s hope at an impressive comeback.
The Wolverines’ loss was the Buckeyes gain, however, as Ohio State picked up that elusive “big-game” victory that had already slipped through its grasp three times this season.
Of course, Thad Matta would tell you that it didn’t have to be that exciting. The Scarlet and Gray leapt out to a 16-3 start right out of the gates and still had a 12-point lead at intermission. From there, they held on for dear life until the final buzzer sounded, escaping with a 56-53 win.
Read on to see the overall and individual grades for the Buckeyes in their best victory of the young season. There may be a bit of grade inflation, simply because Ohio State answered the bell in such an important game.
Anything above a C may be a bit generous for the Ohio State offense Sunday, but there were definitely some things that worked.
The Buckeyes got off to that incredible start because they generated a quick pace that allowed them to get out and run and utilize their athleticism.
It will be hard for any team to keep up with any combination of Aaron Craft, Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith, Shannon Scott and Deshaun Thomas in transition, and there were open threes and layups early off the break.
However, the pace dramatically slowed in the second half, and Ohio State’s offense struggled because of it. A stalling half-court attack led to a mere 22 points after intermission for the Bucks, and we almost saw a repeat of the second-half collapses they had against Duke and Kansas.
Alas, a win is a win, but this victory did not come because of any offensive fireworks.
I warned you about the grade inflation earlier.
Ohio State’s defense was tremendous for the vast majority of the game, as evidenced by the 53 points Michigan put on the board. The Wolverines average better than 80 points a night, which is good enough to place them in the Top 10 of the country in that category.
The Buckeyes won the rebounding battle, forced more turnovers and contested almost every shot against a Michigan team who has a number of players that can light it up from behind the arc.
If Thad Matta’s team is going to reach some of its lofty goals it set before the season, it is going to do so behind the strength of its defending.
Aaron Craft versus Trey Burke was the headline matchup going into this game, and the Buckeyes' point guard won it handily.
Craft held Burke to 4-13 shooting and forced four turnovers. What’s more, it was Craft who provided critical and suffocating defense on Burke in crunch time.
His stat line wasn’t particularly impressive—nine points, four assists, three rebounds and a steal—but it demonstrates the overall impact Ohio State’s leader has on the floor. Even if he isn’t putting up gaudy numbers, when he is on his game, Craft can control almost everything for the Buckeyes.
Michigan coach John Beilein said that Craft was as good as of a defender as he had ever seen after the game, which is incredibly high praise coming from a coach who has made numerous trips to the Big Dance in multiple conferences.
Without Craft harassing Burke the entire contest, Ohio State doesn’t come away with this win.
Not a single player on Ohio State’s roster grabbed more than four rebounds during Sunday’s game except for one. That one was Lenzelle Smith Jr., who snatched a critical 10 boards on the day.
Smith wasn’t great on offense (who was outside of Deshaun Thomas?) with only four points and one assist, but he wasn’t afraid to mix it up inside, and he didn’t force any bad three-point attempts like he has at times in the past.
Still, it was his rebounding that stood out, with Smith pulling down exactly one-third of the Buckeyes’ total boards. If he can bring that type of effort every night, he will always have an impact on the game even when his shot isn’t falling.
Also, don’t forget about the ice water that ran through Smith’s veins when he sank two free throws in the final seconds when Ohio State was only up two.
The box score may not show it, but this was one of Sam Thompson’s best individual efforts in his young Buckeye career.
He was flying around on defense and used his lengthy wingspan to grab four rebounds, collect two steals and bother Tim Hardaway Jr. on a number of jump shots. In fact, Hardaway’s 1-6 tally from behind the arc was partially due to Thompson’s excellent defending.
This being Sam Thompson we are talking about, there was, of course, an incredible alley-oop dunk that nearly blew the roof off the Schottenstein Center late in the game. It was an important moment, because Michigan had just come all the way back to tie it, and it kind of woke the crowd up again.
But Thompson's impact was felt beyond just his impressive highlight slams, which is something Thad Matta will be very pleased with.
Deshaun Thomas was in obvious pain, but he gutted out the final five minutes and basically was Ohio State’s offense. He poured in 20 points, hit three from downtown and even grabbed two offensive rebounds that led to critical second-chance opportunities.
However, it was the fact that there was no way he was coming off the floor down the stretch despite his injury that stood out to me. Thomas showed some of that leadership that Buckeyes fans have been looking for this season with that toughness.
Aaron Craft may be the heart and soul of this squad, but Thomas is the most gifted player. If he can demonstrate the grittiness he showed Sunday consistently, the rest of the team will feed off of his example.
A combination of skill and want-to can be very dangerous.
Amir Williams wasn’t bad on Sunday, but he wasn’t particularly great either.
He ended up with six points and four rebounds, but he only played 11 minutes during the game. Part of that was due to foul trouble, and part of that was due to the fact that Evan Ravenel seems to have more of Thad Matta’s trust at this point, even though Williams is starting.
Nevertheless, Williams did grab three of his four boards on the offensive side, which is a positive sign going forward (not that more defensive rebounds would be a bad thing). He also had a thunderous block that sent an already raucous crowd into a tizzy.
Let me be clear: When I say bench in this situation, I am basically referring to Shannon Scott and Evan Ravenel.
LaQuinton Ross only played three minutes, which is further evidence that Thad Matta doesn’t seem to trust him in close ball games. He didn’t see the floor in the second half against Purdue earlier this week either, even though he played one of his best halves of the season in the first half of that one.
As for Ravenel, he played about as well as can be expected of him in his 29 minutes (although more than three rebounds would be nice). He scored two enormous baskets down the stretch as part of his six points and even tallied a steal and block.
Shannon Scott spearheaded one of the most important swings of the game in the second half, when he hustled down the floor and swatted away an easy Trey Burke layup. That led to a Deshaun Thomas-three in transition, and just like that, Ohio State benefited from a critical five-point swing when Michigan was closing the gap.
He did have three turnovers, but it is plays like that block that have helped Scott earn extended minutes this year.
Thad Matta did about all that Ohio State fans could have asked for Sunday afternoon.
He used his timeouts wisely to help stem momentum from various Michigan runs, he wasn’t afraid to play the players who were playing the best—Sam Thompson was on the floor for almost the entire game, and Evan Ravenel played more than Amir Williams—and he clearly had his team ready to play at the start of the game.
If we are going to nitpick—of course, it wouldn’t be nitpicking had the Buckeyes blown their lead at the end, it would be legitimate concern—Matta should probably stress to his team that it is better in transition than the half-court game. Too many times the offense stalled in the second half, and it almost cost Ohio State another game late.
Still, it’s hard to knock a coach who beat the only undefeated team in the country, at least in the immediate aftermath of the win.
One look at the early resumes for Ohio State and Michigan and it was clear that the Wolverines were going to win, right?
The Buckeyes had other plans Sunday, and they outplayed, outhustled and ultimately outscored their bitter rivals, knocking off the nation’s last remaining unbeaten in the process. The offense clearly needs some work, but the defense was stellar as usual for the entire game.
Slowly but surely, Ohio State’s players are finding their respective roles, which means this team could be dangerous come March.
But there are plenty of prime Big Ten matchups to worry about before that, starting with Michigan State Saturday.