- Todd Needle/Daily
By Steven Braid, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 10, 2013
When Tim Hardaway Jr. was asked Thursday night where Ohio State ranked among all of Michigan’s rivalry games, the swingman refused to answer, saying only that the Wolverines were going to be taking the contest very seriously.
But for sophomore guard Trey Burke, Sunday’s matchup against the 15th-ranked Buckeyes (2-1 Big Ten, 12-3 overall) in Columbus is much more than just a rivalry game. It’s a return to the place where he grew up.
“It means a lot for all of us, but I’m definitely excited to be back playing in front of my hometown,” Burke said. “It’s a real big game.”
Burke, the reigning National Player of the Week, will have the opportunity to show family and friends how much No. 2 Michigan (3-0, 16-0) has improved since last year’s Big Ten Tournament championship, when the Buckeyes thumped the Wolverines, 77-55.
Michigan has matched its best start in program history, and a big reason for that is its dynamic offense. Led by Burke’s team-high 18.3 points and 7.3 assists, the Wolverines rank 10th in the country in points per game (80.8), fourth in field-goal percentage (51.4) and have four starters scoring in double figures.
The Wolverines cooled off a bit in their gritty 62-47 win over Nebraska, posting their lowest offensive output of the season and shooting 3-of-17 from behind the arc, but will try to return to their efficient ways on offense against a Buckeye team that allows less than 60 points per game.
“We didn’t take Nebraska lightly,” said freshman forward Glenn Robinson III. “They had a great game plan coming in, so we just got to continue to execute going into Sunday.”
The Wolverines will most likely receive a big boost in the frontcourt, as redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford is expected to make his return after being sidelined for the past five games with a leg injury.
“If (Horford) plays really well in the next two days in practice, and shows he’s in that type of condition, we’ll throw him in there,” said Michigan coach John Beilein.
On the surface, this Ohio State team seems awfully similar to last year’s squad, scoring and allowing roughly the same amount of points per game. But a deeper look reveals that the Buckeyes are a much different team than the one Michigan saw in 2012.
Their top scorer and rebounder from the 2011-12 season, center Jared Sullinger, left for the NBA. Their most dangerous threat from behind the arc, swingman William Buford, is gone as well. In has stepped junior Deshaun Thomas, who has smoothly transitioned into the Ohio State offense, averaging 20.3 and 6.8 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 forward has also become the resident 3-point marksman for the Buckeyes, making a team-high 38 shots from downtown while shooting just over 40 percent.
The Wolverines will have their hands full with Thomas, who averaged 20 points and eight rebounds in the teams’ three meetings last year.
“Ohio State has a great team, they’re well coached, and they’re capable of beating anyone in the country,” Burke said.
But besides Thomas, the Buckeyes have struggled to receive consistent production from anyone else during the first half of the season. Guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. is the only other player averaging double-digit points (10.7) and preseason All-Big Ten selection Aaron Craft has not performed up to expectations. The point guard is averaging just 8.9 points and 4.7 assists, while shooting career lows of 39.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Though he’ll be playing in front of a home crowd, the magnitude of the game for Michigan has not been lost on Burke.
“This game could decide who wins the Big Ten championship,” Burke said. “We’ll be ready Sunday.”