Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
When Thad Matta spoke into the microphone his voice crackled, often breaking off into a cough. His cheeks were flushed with a slight red hue and the lights from the postgame press conference glistened off of his saturated face.
His team had just earned its first legitimizing win of the season – a 56-53 triumph over a Michigan team that was on the precipice of its first No. 1 ranking in 21 years. And Matta’s presence represented the stress that the rest of the sold-out Schottenstein Center felt as it witnessed the home team’s 21-point lead wilt away into a tie game with six minutes to play.
Must-wins don’t exist for college basketball teams in mid-January, but the Buckeyes’ matchup against Michigan was as close as it gets.
OSU had lost each of its last three games against ranked opponents – a blown lead down the stretch in the always-hostile Cameron Indoor against Duke, a Sahara Desert-esque shooting drought against Kansas and a dud of a performance against Illinois that turned into the worst program loss in more than three years.
Three returning starters from a Final Four team the previous year merited OSU a lofty No. 4 preseason ranking, but ever since the Buckeyes had been methodically cascading down the rankings and giving rise to doubts in not just the psyche of the fans, but surely in their own minds as well that maybe this team wasn’t as good as its predecessors.
So when Michigan rolled into town with a No. 2 overall ranking, a heralded freshman class and two returning stars in junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and sophomore guard Trey Burke, OSU all but needed a win to prove to itself that OSU can compete in the hypercompetetive Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament at year’s end.
OSU played like a desperate team in the game’s opening minutes, pressuring Michigan into uncharacteristic mistakes and building a 29-8 lead.
The Buckeyes blew that lead, regained a six-point advantage and almost saw that one disappear too when Columbus-native Burke’s three that would have given his team a one-point lead rattled out.
“I don’t know how, but I’m not going to give it back, that’s for sure,” Matta said after the game.
Michigan wanted the win too, obviously. But they didn’t need it.
Burke had a little extra incentive, playing against the team that never offered him a scholarship despite growing up a nine iron away from campus. But he was the only one who had anything extra to play for. (And don’t kid yourself, the Michigan-OSU rivalry is nowhere near what it is in football.)
For the rest of the Wolverines, this was the first major road test for a young team. Important yes, but a victory was not instrumental for the team’s long-term success.
Michigan coach John Beilein, despite his team climbing a mountain of a 21-point deficit only to lose in the end, did not look or sound like a disappointed coach. On the contrary, he was calm and encouraged.
“This is terrific for us,” he said. “Every coach will tell you that. When is the last team that didn’t lose? The teams that really prosper from it are the teams that get better from it. We did not play a top-20 team on the road.
“We had five freshmen play almost double-digit minutes, they didn’t have a freshman see the floor.”
It would have been great for Michigan to get the win, but the Wolverines – playing on the road – have vastly different goals than the Buckeyes, who have a single freshman on their roster, at this point in the season.
So don’t catapult OSU back into the “elite teams” category just yet.
This Buckeye team is good. They proved that if their backs are against the wall they can beat any team in the country. But what happens when the other team is desperate for victory just as much as OSU, like say in March?
That remains to be seen.