Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Trey Burke couldn’t help but smile.
Michigan’s sophomore point guard had just hit a leaning, double-clutched 3-pointer that banked off the backboard and through the net. It was, perhaps, the toughest shot Burke had taken all game, and he made it.
After a contest full of ill-fated attempts, something had finally fallen for the Wolverines’ Player of the Year candidate, and it brought a sense of sarcastic joy to the face of the Columbus native.
The shot was irrelevant in the game’s final outcome. It came with one second left and Michigan down six. It wasn’t the shot that Burke, or the Wolverines, needed.
That shot had come 15 seconds prior, with Michigan down two, and the ball in the hands of its sophomore playmaker. Burke, going one-on-one against Aaron Craft, took a step-back three over the Ohio State junior guard’s outstretched arms. It went in and out, and with it, so did the Wolverines’ chances of beating the Buckeyes.
Playing in front of about 25 friends and family members clad in Maize and Blue No. 3 jerseys, Burke struggled. The former Buckeye fan and current best friend of former OSU star Jared Sullinger went 4-13 from the field, his worst shooting performance of the season.
Burke wasn’t the only Wolverine that had little success in their 56-53 loss to the Buckeyes on Sunday, though.
Michigan (16-1, 3-1 Big Ten) shot 38 percent as a team. OSU (13-3, 3-1 Big Ten) held the Wolverines’ big four of Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, and Glenn Robinson III to 35 points, 24 less than their season average.
“Ohio State has a really, really good defensive team. Really good,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “You’re watching a team that plays defense, buys into it and has very skilled defenders on the perimeter.”
The Buckeyes, led by Craft, were physical with the Wolverines from the get-go. Burke opened the game with a three, but the Wolverines proceeded to go scoreless for the next seven minutes, eventually falling in a 29-8 hole.
“They did beat us up a little bit,” Hardaway Jr., a junior guard, said.
Michigan relies heavily on its underclassmen, with two freshmen – Stauskas and Robinson – in its starting five. Those players, Stauskas especially, were noticeably irritated by OSU’s in-your-face, deny-the-ball style of play. Stauskas, a 6-foot-6 sharpshooting guard from Canada, was held scoreless for the first time this season. After being sent to the bench midway through the first half, Stauskas couldn’t contain his anger as he yelled four-letter words not able to be repeated.
“They were denying (Stauskas), so we just had to continue to play. When we got (the ball) in the paint, they wasn’t leaving him,” Burke said. “I just told him to ‘keep getting good looks, I’m going to find you, we’re all going to find you.’ Ohio State was taking him away on the perimeter.”
For OSU, they need not look any further than Sunday’s game as a blueprint on how to be successful the rest of the season.
Having lost their first three games against ranked opponents (Duke, Kansas, Illinois), the Buckeyes notched their first big win of the year Sunday. The Buckeyes handed Michigan its first loss of the season – thereby denying the Wolverines of their first No. 1 ranking in 21 years – and they did it with their defense.
Sure, OSU shot the ball well in the first half and at one point had a shooting percentage of nearly 70 percent. But that likely won’t happen very many times again this season, if at all, as the Buckeyes proved by regressing to a 44 percent output by the end of the game.
What they can rely on is their defense. It’s what makes them great, Beilein said.
“This team, and (OSU coach Thad Matta’s) teams, have always been this way … the perimeter defense in particular is exceptional. Why? They’ve been doing the same shell drills for two, three, four years. They really work at this and they’re really good at it,” Beilein said emphatically.
Against the Wolverines, nearly every Buckeye was solid, some playing spectacularly.
Craft held Burke, a probable first-team all-American with a skill set analysts have compared to NBA great Chris Paul, to his worst outing of the season.
“Craft is one of the best defenders. You have to give him credit. I love playing against him because he makes me better and he makes me work,” Burke said.
“Craft is as good as there is, as I’ve ever seen. He’s tremendous,” Beilein said.
OSU sophomore guard Shannon Scott blocked a Burke layup in transition, sending the sold-out Schottenstein Center crowd into a vibrating roar. Senior forward Evan Ravenel and sophomore center Amir Williams limited the Wolverines’ big men to 13 points.
Even junior forward Deshaun Thomas, called “Shaun” at times last year by Matta because he “played no D,” stepped up.
“I thought Deshaun played harder on defense tonight than he ever had. That is the type of defensive play we need from him to be a successful team,” Matta said.
To continue to be successful, OSU, admittedly, needs to have the type of energy and effort it brought into Sunday’s contest every game.
Beilein said he doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“Thad’s a great defensive coach and they’ve got great defenders, that’s a great combination,” he said.
OSU, ranked No. 11 in the most recent Associated Press poll, next travels to Michigan State to take on the No. 18 Spartans at 6 p.m. Saturday. Michigan is now ranked No. 5 by the AP. Lousville took hold of the No. 1 ranking.