COLUMBUS, Ohio — There were lessons to be learned from Sunday’s game between No. 2 Michigan and No. 14 Ohio State, lessons about seasoning, and margin for error, and the difficulty of winning on the road in the loaded Big Ten, and the importance of old-fashioned, hard-nosed defense.
In dropping its first game of the season, Michigan also learned that two point guards are better than one.
Especially when one of those two is Aaron Craft.
Per usual, Deshaun Thomas did the scoring for Ohio State and high-flyer Sam Thompson made the plays that will lead the highlights. But Craft drove everything, and his part-time backcourt mate Shannon Scott played a big role, too, in what became another humbling homecoming for Michigan’s Trey Burke, who came in as the nation’s hottest point guard.
Ohio State won, 56-53, in a strange, emotionally charged game that started with Ohio State dominating. Burke scored the game’s first 3 points; the Buckeyes got the next 16 and led by as many as 21 in the first half. But Ohio State isn’t a great offensive team, and Michigan is, and the Wolverines steadily climbed back in it, even tying the game at 46 with a little less than six minutes left.
The better defensive team won. It was the team that started every possession with the ball in Craft’s hands; he guarded Burke on every Michigan possession down the stretch, too. Down by two with 16 seconds left, Burke saw a 3-pointer off the dribble hit every side of the rim and fall out, into the waiting hands of Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Burke would hit a 3-pointer with one second left for the game’s last score, but that followed a rebound and two free throws by Craft that had essentially sealed it.
“Aaron had a unique way about him before the game,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “I knew he was going to play at the level we needed him to in order to win. During a timeout he even said, ‘Stop helping, I’ll do the job.'”
Burke, who came into the game averaging better than 18 points and 7 assists, shot just 4-of-13, had 15 points and 4 assists. A Michigan team that had scored 80 or more in six of its last eight games fought to get to 50, and a desperate, scrappy Ohio State team held on to win the kind of game it’s built to win, largely because Craft keeps the Buckeyes rolling.
“Ohio State is really, really good defensive team,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Really good. You’re watching a team that plays big-time defense, buys into it and really has skilled defenders on the perimeter
“Craft is as good as there is (defensively), as good as I’ve ever seen. He’s tremendous. I just applaud that.”
Inside the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is a personal rivalry between Craft and Burke; a real one, but not a bitter one. The Craft and Burke families shared hugs and conversation before the game. The point guards who grew up playing a year apart in the same AAU program shared the same after. For 37 minutes on the floor, it was a battle.
“(Craft is) one of the best defenders,” Burke said. “Give him credit. I love playing against him because he makes me better and he makes me work.”
Of the missed 3-pointer that would have given Michigan its first lead in almost 39 minutes, Burke said, “I think it went in and then came out.”
It summed up his day. On one second half play, Burke beat Craft in the open floor only to have what Burke thought was an open layup blocked from behind by Scott. With Michigan trailing by six in the final two minutes, Burke stole the ball from Craft and headed for a score, but a hustling Craft gave chase and fouled Burke as he approached the paint.
The trailing official called the foul on the floor, negating the spinning layup that Burke made after contact. Instead of going to the line with a chance to make it a one-possession game, Michigan had to inbound while trailing by six.
Even after a turnover, Craft was the smartest player on the floor.
“Obviously I wanted to foul him there before the shot,” Craft said. “And I’m lucky we don’t have continuation because he made the layup.
“Absolutely, the chance to play against Trey is a little bit of (personal) incentive. As a team, we did a great job stepping up to that challenge. Everything else aside, it’s Ohio State-Michigan. We were both going to come ready to play.”
Craft and Scott combined for 8 assists, and Craft scored 9 points. Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, led everybody with 20 and was the only Ohio State player in double figures. These Buckeyes are comfortable in their own skin, knowing they’re good when Thomas heats up and Craft gets in the lane and everyone else follows their lead.
The formula worked on Sunday. Michigan came in as the nation’s last undefeated team and left disappointed. Burke, who grew up just minutes from Ohio State’s campus and won a high school state championship with former Ohio State star Jared Sullinger, is now 1-3 against the Buckeyes and Craft.
“If you try to make it personal, that can get you off your game,” Craft said. “The sky is the limit for Trey right now. We just did a great job of sticking together and getting a very big win.”