Tuesday night’s overtime thriller between Ohio State and Michigan was an unbelievably entertaining and high-quality basketball game. Credit the Buckeyes for hanging tough in a raucous atmosphere.
But a three-time defending Big Ten champion is not in the business of moral victories.
The Buckeyes lost a heartbreaker in overtime at Crisler Arena 76-74 in a contest that was defined by momentum swings, lights-out shooting from Tim Hardaway Jr. and enthralling defense by Aaron Craft and Trey Burke.
While fans of both teams would be lucky to see a rubber match in the Big Ten Tournament (something that happened last season), the road doesn’t get any easier in the nation’s best conference going forward.
Read on to see 10 things we learned from the Buckeyes’ loss to Michigan.
Trey Burke had an outstanding game on Tuesday night. That still doesn’t take away from the fact that Aaron Craft is an incredible defender that comes to play at the biggest moments.
Burke ended up with 16 points on six-of-12 shooting, but that is a testament to his greatness above anything else. The Wolverines’ floor-general had to work for every open look he saw and benefited from the use of screens throughout the game.
Without them he would have seen nothing but a scarlet No. 4 in his sleep all night long.
Craft ended up with three steals, but his impact on the defensive side of the floor went far beyond that. He drew clutch charges, forced uncredited turnovers and harassed Michigan’s backcourt for 44 minutes.
He flexed his clutch muscles by nearly sealing the game with a steal on Burke in the waning moments of overtime, but the Buckeyes were unable to take advantage with the ball.
Chances are you didn’t have to read the previous slide to know that Aaron Craft is one of the Big Ten's and America’s best defenders.
He is a high school coach’s dream with his fundamentals, willingness to dive for loose balls and lateral movement and will continue to change games with his defense alone as long as he is in Columbus.
However, the one thing holding Craft back from the realms of excellence is his offense.
There were plenty in Buckeye Nation calling for Craft to score more entering the season, but his jump shot still isn’t falling. What’s more, he didn’t look comfortable at the end of regulation when Michigan would press up on his ball-handling.
Thad Matta trusts Craft as an extension of the coaching staff on the floor, and he frankly had to realize that he didn’t have it going on offense Tuesday night down the stretch. The fact that Deshaun Thomas—the Big Ten’s leading scorer—didn’t touch the ball in overtime has to at least partially fall on the point guard’s shoulders.
It may be time to accept the fact that Craft—who is last on the team among scholarship players in field-goal percentage—is a defensive force that is never going to have the impact Buckeye fans would like with the ball in his hands.
While Aaron Craft certainly has a responsibility to find the team’s best player down the stretch as the point guard, Deshaun Thomas needed to be more assertive in overtime.
He is the best player on the team (at least on the offensive side) and leads the Big Ten in scoring. Those types of credentials give him the leverage to demand the ball in the game’s final possessions.
Instead he stood around too much and became a spectator as Craft tried to force the issue. Hindsight is always 20/20, but the outcome may have been different had the Buckeyes’ best pure-scorer been the one with the ball in his hands at crunch time.
LaQuinton Ross has taken on an almost mythical status among Buckeye fans.
The line of thought goes if only Thad Matta would play this enigma of a player more often, Ohio State wouldn’t look so helpless at times with the ball.
He was so highly-regarded coming out of high school that people expected him to light it up the second he stepped on campus. Even after riding the bench for the vast majority of his freshman campaign, many thought Ross would start this season and be Ohio State’s second option behind Deshaun Thomas.
Buckeye Nation was finally treated to the Ross it heard about and not the one it had previously seen on Tuesday night.
The 6’8” wingman scored 16 points on seven-of-10 shooting, grabbed five rebounds and hit both of his three-point attempts. He was the best offensive player on the floor for the Buckeyes and looked completely comfortable with the ball in his hands against a quality opponent for the first time all year.
If the Ross that fans were treated to Tuesday shows up for the rest of the season, the book may not be closed on a Big Ten title run just yet.
Ohio State may be ranked No. 10 in the Top 25, but the argument can be made that it is the fifth best team in the Big Ten.
Indiana is No. 1 in the land, Michigan is a legitimate national title contender, Michigan State has Tom Izzo and already beat the Buckeyes once and Minnesota is extremely talented and could beat anyone on any given night.
If you subscribe to that line of reasoning, the conference’s fifth-best team is a defensive juggernaut that can hang with anyone in the country if it scores enough points. The Buckeyes were the better team for long stretches Tuesday night and were an overtime away from winning on the road against one of the nation’s best teams.
Ohio State had the Wolverines on the ropes a number of times and always responded whenever Michigan threw a punch and appeared to be ready to run away with the game.
It would be something of an upset at this point if there aren’t two Big Ten teams in the Final Four come March.
Amir Williams earned a starting spot nearly halfway through the season, but he is still the 6’11” center that is yet to deliver on the promise that surrounded him coming out of high school.
In today’s one-and-done world of college hoops, it becomes easy to label someone a bust if they are not averaging 15 points a game by the middle of their freshman campaign. As fans saw Tuesday night, there is a chance Williams is gradually beginning to tap into his vast potential in the middle of his sophomore year.
He scored nine points behind a couple solid dunks in traffic and swatted away four Michigan shots. What’s more, he played 36 minutes, more than any Buckeye not named Deshaun Thomas or Aaron Craft.
It is still concerning that he only grabbed four rebounds considering his height and how much playing time he saw, but Williams was more aggressive on both sides of the ball Tuesday and appears primed to make the strides fans (and Thad Matta) have been looking for since last year.
Evan Ravenel began the year as the starting center. He will never be mistaken for Jared Sullinger (or even Kosta Koufos), but he provides the Buckeyes with energy and solid rebounding despite being somewhat undersized in the lane.
However, Amir Williams took over the starting role midway through the season, and Ravenel’s role seems to be diminishing.
He only played 12 minutes off the bench at Nebraska earlier in the week and saw a mere nine minutes of action Tuesday in Ann Arbor. The lack of playing time against the Wolverines was as much of a result of Williams’ solid play as anything else, but it’s only natural to wonder if this recent trend is a sign of things to come.
Ravenel is still a better rebounder than Williams even though the younger Williams is taller, and he doesn’t have the occasional mental lapses that Williams does. It’s worth keeping an eye on Ravenel’s role when Ohio State welcomes the Hoosiers to town.
Whether Tim Hardaway Jr. or Trey Burke fouled Aaron Craft on the final play of the game or not probably depends on your allegiance in the Ohio State and Michigan rivalry.
That being said, referees never want to be a part of the story at the end, especially when it is the home team that potentially committed a foul on the final play. Unless Craft was absolutely manhandled, there is no way a foul was being called.
Look no further than the Super Bowl for more evidence of the refs simply staying out of the way during the games’ final moments when no holding flag was thrown in the corner of the end zone.
Even if Buckeye fans thought it was a foul and Craft should have been on the line with a chance to send the game to double overtime, the reality is, Ohio State had plenty of chances in regulation and overtime to win the game.
It simply didn’t take advantage of the opportunities.
This article is about Ohio State going forward, but don’t overlook the quality of the team on the other end of the floor from Tuesday night.
Trey Burke garners all the headlines for Michigan, and rightly so, but there are so many weapons in Ann Arbor it is difficult to see the Wolverines getting knocked off before the Elite Eight at the very least.
A trip to the Final Four (or beyond) seems more realistic.
If Tim Hardaway Jr. shoots the way he did Tuesday night and freshman Mitch McGary has the type of impact he did in the lane, Burke will not have to carry this squad come March. The result could be a Big Ten crown and possible national championship.
Considering Michigan’s strength this year, Ohio State’s efforts on Tuesday night were impressive. The loss still stings, but it is clear the Buckeyes are talented enough to compete against anyone in the country.
They just need the consistency.
Ohio State is not the best team in the Big Ten, but that doesn’t mean a conference championship wasn’t one of the goals heading into the season. After all, the Buckeyes have won three straight league crowns, and they weren’t about to relinquish the title without a fight.
Even though Tuesday’s loss was an expected one on the road, Sunday’s game against top-ranked Indiana is now a must-win if Ohio State hopes to win another Big Ten championship. With games at Wisconsin and Indiana, as well as home dates with Michigan State and Minnesota still looming, a three-game deficit would be too much to overcome.
Beating Indiana is much easier said than done (just ask Michigan), but at least the Buckeyes are at home. With so much at stake expect the crowd to be rocking from the get go.