Ohio State’s game Tuesday at Michigan game marks the first ever regular-season meeting between the schools with both basketball teams ranked in the top 10.
A game that’s always intense is also more than a little bit personal for No. 3 Michigan’s best player.
Not only did Trey Burke grow up basically in the shadows of Ohio State’s campus and as best friends and high school teammates with former Buckeyes star Jared Sullinger, but Burke has become a star in his own right at Ohio State’s biggest rival. He’s a strong candidate for National Player of the Year honors as a sophomore point guard directing Michigan’s high-flying, high-scoring offense.
If he doesn’t win the Wooden Award, or others like it at the end of the season, it might have a lot to do with No. 10 Ohio State.
And Aaron Craft, in particular.
Long considered one of the nation’s best and most relentless defenders, Craft and his teammates have gotten the best of Burke thus far. Ohio State went 2-1 against Michigan last year, and the Buckeyes won this season’s first meeting on Jan. 13 in Columbus. Burke scored 15 points in that game, more than three points below his average and the fewest he has scored in Big Ten play.
Everywhere Burke went on what became a 4-of-13 shooting day, Craft followed closely; they basically shared the same oxygen. For now, anyway, the ultra-talented Burke is still trying to best the guy he followed by a year in the All-Ohio Red AAU program.
“(Craft) is one of the best defenders there is,” Burke said after that January game. “I love playing against him. He makes me work, and he makes me better.”
The Craft and Burke families shared hugs before the January game in Columbus. Afterward, Burke greeted probably 30 friends and family members, but had to force a smile. It was Michigan’s first loss of the season and kept the Wolverines from being No. 1 for the first time since some guys called the Fab Five wore the maize and blue. The 53 points Michigan scored that day are nine below the Wolverines’ second-lowest output of the season.
It was probably Burke’s most disappointing game, individually, since he shot 1-of-11 and scored only five points in a blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals last March. In three meetings last year, Burke shot just 33 percent and scored 35 total points; he averaged 14.8 for the season.
“Craft is as good as I’ve ever seen defensively,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He’s just tremendous.”
Burke has been both brilliant and otherwise consistent this season, averaging 18.2 points and 7.2 assists per game while shooting 48 percent and directing an offense that’s averaging 77.8 points per game. He has had standout games like 27 points and eight assists vs. West Virginia, 22 and 11 vs. Central Michigan and 19 and 12 vs. Iowa. He scored 25 on Saturday night in an 81-73 loss at Indiana, which ascended to No. 1 in the new rankings released Monday after Michigan dug itself an early hole from which it was ultimately unable to recover.
Ohio State knows its only chance is to keep the game in the 50s or low 60s, as it did in that 56-53 win over Michigan last month. The Buckeyes also know that Michigan will be tough to beat in Crisler Arena like last year, when Ohio State came out flat and Burke scored 17 in a 56-51 Wolverines vicory.
“Michigan just took a loss and they’re going to be ready to get after it,” Craft said. “We were their first loss. They’ll be ready.”
Craft downplayed any talk of a personal rivalry with Burke, instead saying it’s the time of the year that the Buckeyes as a team need to be clicking and realize “the significance of every possession.” Craft told Buckeyes coach Thad Matta during the first game to quit sending help defense for Burke and that he was up to the challenge of guarding him solo.
Tuesday night, he’ll take that challenge again.
“Trey is a hard worker from a great family,” Craft said. “I’ve seen him be very successful at every level. We kind of grew up together and it’s great to see him have success.”
It’s even better, though, when it comes against teams besides Ohio State.