COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ah, Michigan-Ohio State. The pageantry, the rivalry, the tradition. Wait, a minute. They didn’t even play last football season.
But this is 2021. Their showdown was in basketball Sunday. Didn’t mean there weren’t bodies flying, didn’t mean there weren’t emotions flowing, didn’t mean it couldn’t be a tense and sometimes epic struggle, just like they’ve had down the street at Ohio Stadium. And when it was over, Michigan had won 92-87, which hasn’t happened lately in football.
“I could tell they didn’t like us,” said Michigan freshman Hunter Dickinson, with 22 points in his first Wolverine-Buckeye game. “And we sure didn’t like them, either.”
This is 2021, and there’s a reason these two teams have their hands on No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament at the moment. There’s a reason the Big Ten gets spoken about this season in such respectful tones. You could see that Sunday, after a game with 179 points, 22 3-pointers — and only 16 turnovers. On display were two nationally worthy conference standard bearers, and neither may even be the best team in the league right now. Yeah, we’re talking about you, Illinois.
In 2021, the nation’s biggest dogs are in Spokane, Washington, and Waco, Texas, but here were the Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the latest Associated Press poll. The two old friends had never combined for such a high-ranking duel before, not in 184 previous games.
In 2021, No. 3 Michigan – mentioned as low as seventh in preseason Big Ten figuring – is now 16-1 and 11-1 in the league. “One way or another, they have to realize who we are and what we’re about,” Dickinson said of any remaining doubters. The Wolverines might end up the last team standing in the Big Ten tournament, just like they were last March, only in a different way. They, with Rutgers, were the teams yanked off the court in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis just before tip-off, as pandemic darkness fell upon college basketball. The virus is pretty much the only thing that has stopped them this season, too, when the state of Michigan decreed a pause that halted them for 22 days.
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Juwan Howard compared Sunday to a boxing match — “Coach loves those boxer analogies,” Dickinson said — and thought the Wolverines’ stop-and-go season has hardened them for such moments.
“One team delivered a blow and then the other team delivered another blow and it kept going back and forth. In order to be able to sustain that, you had to have mental toughness,” Howard said. “We’ve been battle tested with the pause, with COVID, when the university had to take a step back 14 days. Our guys handled themselves very well . . . (they’ve been) very responsible, disciplined young men throughout this pandemic.”
In 2021, one of the games of the year in the mighty Big Ten came with curtains closing off the upper deck, and a few dozen spectators sprinkled on one side of an otherwise vacant arena. Not even enough for a decent Script Ohio.
In 2021, free throw shooters look into cardboard cutouts of pet dogs at one end of Value City Arena, and someone at Ohio State has come up with the nifty idea of having pregame introductions made on the overhead board by families, friends and former coaches of Buckeye players. Meanwhile, Howard called out his instructions in a blue mask with a maize M.
In 2021, take away Gonzaga and Baylor, and the NCAA’s current NET rankings almost look like the Big Ten standings, with the league taking spots three through six. There are four more in the top 34. Iowa might have the wire-to-wire favorite for national player of the year in Luka Garza, but some of the votes he doesn’t get will probably go to Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu, whose coach went into full campaign mode after his star rang up another triple-double over the weekend. “I have no idea,” Brad Underwood said, “who the hell anybody thinks is any better than him right now.”
In 2021, Ohio State could shoot 53.3 percent against Michigan with only nine turnovers, Duane Washington Jr. could score 30 points and E.J. Liddell 23. They don’t exactly sound like losing numbers, but they were Sunday.
In 2021, this is what happens when two of the Big Ten heavyweights — to stay with Howard’s motif — go at it:
Six points. That was the biggest lead either team had until the last minute.
Seventeen. That’s how many times the lead changed. No wonder, the heated tenor.
Chaundee Brown Jr. buries a 3-pointer from the corner, and turns to exchange a few pleasantries with the Ohio State bench. An official steps in to say that is enough of that.
Ohio State tries to stop a Dickinson put-back, and Dickinson and three Buckeyes end up sprawled on the floor.
Howard shows his team a pregame film of the Buckeyes dancing after beating the Wolverines last season, with a reminder that Michigan has lost 13 of their past 14 games in Columbus.
“That’s something we really wanted to change at the start of the day,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “That’s what drove us the most.”
All that talking and physical back-and-forth? Howard had a quick explanation: “It’s the Big Ten, baby.”
In 2021, it’s Gonzaga and Baylor, and then a bunch of Big Ten teams in their rear-view mirror. Sunday showed why.
“This is a great game,” one of the officials said to Brooks during a stoppage in play.
“You’re not wrong there,” answered the Michigan guard.
It’s the Big Ten, baby.