COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The final unbeaten dream is dead.
Ohio State killed the last one left and in the process proved that it’s suddenly alive and well as a contender again.
Limping along without a win over a ranked opponent and a little more than a week removed from an embarrassing early loss in conference play, the Buckeyes finally rediscovered the defense-first formula that has proved to work from them so many times before. And while Ohio State would have taken a momentum-building win over any ranked team in the Big Ten to help validate itself again as a national threat, there were certainly no complaints about the collateral damage a 56-53 win on Sunday at Value City Arena caused No. 2 Michigan.
A perfect start for the Wolverines is gone. Trey Burke’s player of the year candidacy hit a minor snag thanks to the relentless pressure the Buckeyes slapped on him. And with Michigan poised to jump to No. 1 in the polls after watching the other unbeaten teams fall one by one this week, it’ll likely be heading the other direction while No. 15 Ohio State reversed its slide and put itself in position to climb again.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft said. “We hadn’t played our best when we played the better teams that we played this year, and I think we kind of just took a step back and tried to find a way to get a big win.
“Any time you can do it against a team like Michigan or in this league [is big], and you just can’t lose at home. That’s something that you really harp on if you want to be there at the end of the season, to try to win a Big Ten championship.”
The Buckeyes checked off everything on that to-do list one by one, almost as soon as the ball was tipped.
There was no shortage of passion on the court or in the sellout crowd, and Ohio State turned that energy into a huge 16-0 run that put a young Michigan team on its heels just seven minutes into the game.
The Buckeyes also tirelessly defended their home court, harassing Burke with lockdown defense from Craft that forced Michigan’s leading scorer to take 14 shots to get his 15 points while turning the ball over four times.
And the message that it was going to take a return to a tougher brand of basketball after losses at Duke, last month at home against Kansas and in an ugly trip to Illinois was clearly delivered, putting the Buckeyes right back in the mix in the rugged Big Ten.
“Our coaches, everybody, we were disappointed in our effort [at Illinois],” senior Evan Ravenel said. “We just told the team, if we come out here like that, we’re going to get beat up and beat every game in this league.
“We know what kind of team we have and know how we’ve got to play, we’ve got to play physical, grind it out, play strong defensively and we’ve got to have a good mind to win games. That’s what we did today.”
The Buckeyes didn’t exactly do it for the entire 40 minutes, struggling through a lengthy dry spell as the Wolverines dialed up the defensive pressure themselves to completely erase a lead that had been as large as 21 points to tie the game late in the second half.
But just as Ohio State had tightened the screws defensively in jumping out in front of its rival, it put itself back in control by making it difficult for Burke to get open looks -- or anybody else, for that matter, as the Big Ten’s best shooting team connected on just 38 percent of its attempts from the floor to watch its perfect start go up in flames.
“[Ohio State coach Thad Matta’s] teams have always been this way, but this one really, the perimeter defense in particular, is exceptional,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Thad is a great defensive coach and they’ve got great defenders, and that combination is very good.
“Craft is as good as there is, as good as I’ve ever seen. He’s tremendous, he’s going to be good and you just have to applaud that and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to continue to get better, because they’re going to continue to get better.’”
The Buckeyes have some proof of improvement now.
And while the work is far from over with so much basketball left ahead of Ohio State in the Big Ten, it made sure there would be no need for a second crack at ending a rival's perfect season -- or another chance to claim its first signature victory.