By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 13, 2013
COLUMBUS — A win would have made Michigan the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since 1992.
A successful showing in Columbus would have made the Wolverines 17-0, their best start in program history.
Beating Ohio State would have given Michigan coach John Beilein his best start to a season as a coach anywhere, at any level.
Maybe most importantly, a win would have proved that the relatively untested Wolverines could compete with the best teams in the country on the road, and it could have made the upcoming gauntlet that is the Big Ten seem a little more manageable.
But in its biggest game of the season, on its biggest stage, No. 2 Michigan was outmatched, outplayed and beat up for most of the contest in a 56-53 loss to No. 15 Ohio State on Sunday.
Sophomore point guard Trey Burke, a Columbus native who grew up wanting to play for the Buckeyes, started the game off with a confident 3-pointer. This was the Michigan fans had seen all season — bold, strong and at times, cocky. This was expected.
The Wolverines not scoring for the next seven minutes and 44 seconds of game time was not. By the time freshman forward Glenn Robinson III hit Michigan’s second bucket, a 3-pointer, Michigan trailed 16-6. The Wolverines couldn’t move the ball against Ohio State’s physical perimeter defenders and struggled to get the ball even close to the key.
“This team — and (Ohio State coach Thad Matta’s) teams have always been this way — but this one, the perimeter defense in particular is exceptional,” Beilein said of the Buckeyes. “Why? They’ve been doing the same shell drills for two, three, four years. They really work at this and they are really good at it.”
Michigan’s swagger slowly evaporated — shots that were usually taken from deep weren’t taken, passes into the lane were timid and drives to the basket led to turnovers more often than not.
It all came down to turnovers: the Buckeyes capitalized by forcing 13 of them against a team that averages 9.3 a game. Michigan had nine in the first half alone, and ten minutes into the game, the Wolverines had more turnovers, seven, than points scored, six.
In five different games this year, the Wolverines have committed less than seven turnovers. On Sunday, they had seven less than 11 minutes into the game.
“They came out and beat us up a bit,” junior forward Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “We have to know how to control the pressure and play better.”
Michigan looked lost offensively in the first half, unsure of what to do against the contact and pressure of the home team. It scored just 22 points in the first half — a season low — and even that was after a 14-5 run to close the half.
All in all, starting the second half down 12 was pretty reasonable considering how poorly the game had started for the Wolverines.
Slowly, Michigan started to chip away in the second half. Cutting down on the turnovers helped — it committed just four in the second half — but it also started to crash the boards with a little more ferocity and to take some of those shots it was passing up earlier.
“In the second half, I think we came out the way we should have came out in the first half,” Burke said. “It was too late. It was two or three possessions too late.”
Going into the game, the big matchup was between Burke and Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who is regarded as one of the best defenders in the country. Burke played fine, ending with a team-high fifteen points, but he also had four turnovers to go along with just four assists. He wasn’t able to drive as well as usual, and Craft was in his face all night.
“Craft is as good as there is, as good as I’ve ever seen,” Beilein said. “He’s tremendous.”
Added Craft: “Any time you get to play against a great guy like (Burke), you have some incentive to go out and see what you can do. Our defense did what it needed to do today, and that really helped.”
Still, Michigan found other ways to score. Burke’s backup, freshman Spike Albrecht, contributed seven first-half points, and Hardaway contributed 12.
But Hardaway needed 15 shots to score those 12 points. Burke needed 13 shots to score his 15 points. Freshman forward Nik Stauskas, who averages almost 14 points a game, didn’t score.
As a team, the Wolverines made less than 40 percent of their shots, in a season where they average more than the 50 percent from the floor.
“We had five freshman play almost double-digit minutes, and they did not have a freshman see the floor,” Beilein said. “It’s adversity. At this time of the year, we are seeing our first top-level teams on the road.”
It was close at the end. Michigan got to within one point with more than six minutes left in the game. Then, a fast break, one-handed alley-oop by Ohio State forward Sam Thomson lit the crowd on fire. Robinson, calmly, sank a three at the other end to tie the game.
But Buckeye forward Deshaun Thomas, who led all scorers with 20 points, responded with a dunk of his own at the other end to put Ohio State back in the lead, and that was the closest Michigan got.
Even to the bitter end, Michigan never stopped clawing. Burke had the ball with a chance to win the game, down two with 20 seconds left. He shot a deep three — again, with Craft in his face — as the shot clock was winding down and eight seconds left in the game. The shot went halfway in, but spun and rattled out. Ohio State made its free throws down the stretch to seal the game.
Burke and the Wolverines had a chance at the end, in a game that looked out of hand from the beginning, but couldn’t finish in their quest for the nation’s top spot.