Another rivalry game, and once again, first place is at stake.
On Sunday, the No. 20 Michigan men’s basketball team will head to Columbus to take on No. 4 Ohio State (6-2 Big Ten, 18-3 overall), the highest-ranked opponent the Wolverines have played all season.
The game will be one of the most hyped matchups between the two teams in years, as the rivals haven’t played against each other as ranked teams since 1992.
“We’re fortunate this week,” said freshman point guard Trey Burke. “We have about three or four days to prepare for them and watch film on them, something we really haven’t had since the beginning of the year. Most of our games are two or three days after the previous game so we have more time to prepare for them and see some of their player tendencies and things like that, so we’ll be ready.”
It’s been nine years since Michigan (6-2, 16-5) took down the Buckeyes on the road, but this year’s Wolverines may be the best candidates in a decade to knock off their rival.
At 6-2, the Wolverines are off to their best conference start in six years. Burke, who is averaging 14 points and five assists per game, has added a new dynamic to Michigan coach John Beilein’s offense, making it quicker, crisper and more explosive.
The game will mark Burke’s return to his native Columbus, where he became close friends with Buckeye star forward, Jared Sullinger.
Ohio State, widely considered the runaway favorite to win the Big Ten at the start of the season, lived up to its billing during its non-conference slate. The Buckeyes’ only blemish during pre-Big Ten play came on the road against No. 5 Kansas, a game which Sullinger sat out with a back injury.
But as soon as the Buckeyes entered conference play, it was unable to shed the plague that has infected the rest of the conference — road losses.
Ohio State fell to Indiana on New Year’s Eve and was upset 10 days later at Illinois behind a stellar 43-point performance from Fighting Illini guard Brandon Paul.
The two losses leave the Buckeyes in a three-way tie for first place with the Wolverines and No. 10 Michigan State.
Ohio State is led by Sullinger, who averages 17 points and nine rebounds a game, numbers almost identical to his stellar freshman year. Forward Deshaun Thomas has broken out this season, nearly doubling his scoring average from last season.
But the key matchup on Sunday could be at point guard between Burke and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. Satisfied with recruiting Craft two years ago, Ohio State coach Thad Matta showed little interest in Burke coming out of high school, despite the Buckeyes being his top choice.
“He never really forced the issue to recruit me or offer me a scholarship,” Burke said. “I think it was more of, he knew who he wanted at the point guard position. He was just recruiting other players. I kind of knew that he really wasn’t interested in me, or the coaching staff really wasn’t interested in me as much as I wanted as I wanted them to be.
“Once I got here to Michigan, I saw that this was the best decision for me and the best place for me to be.”
For that, Michigan can credit Craft and Matta for its fast start.
However, the last time Michigan started this well, it didn’t turn out so hot.
The Daniel Horton-led 2005-06 team that started out 6-2 was ranked 21st going into its ninth conference game. But that next contest was a blowout loss on the road at Iowa and the Wolverines went on to lose seven of their last nine regular-season games.
Michigan hopes to avoid a similar fate this year as it nears the back half of its conference schedule.
“It’s real important,” Burke said. “We’re tied at first with Ohio State. Pulling out a win in Columbus will probably give us a chance of being one of the top teams in the Big Ten.”