Five Things We Learned: Michigan

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Last updated: 02/04/2011 8:10 AM
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Men's Basketball
Five Things We Learned: Michigan
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — During the football season, we run a feature after every game called Ten Things We Learned.

It has become such a fan-favorite that we decided the basketball team needed some love too. After all, they are ranked No. 1 in the country, having won 23 straight games to start the season for just the second time in school history.

We take a look at the Five Things We Learned following Ohio State's 62-53 win over Michigan Thursday, because, well, 10 things are just too many for a basketball game.

1.Victory was never in doubt. Even when they trailed by three points heading to the locker rooms at halftime Thursday, there was never a sense Ohio State was in danger of losing to Michigan. Not with the way they’re playing right now. After getting out to a 7-0 start, the Buckeyes looked terrible the rest of the first half. They weren’t sharing the basketball, they were careless, they weren’t finishing inside and they weren’t getting back on defense. In other words, they weren’t displaying any of the characteristics that have made them the No. 1 team in the country.

Yet this team seems to have the ability to flip the switch when things aren’t going their way. Either Thad Matta is the master motivator, or having a team full of veterans—and mature freshmen—has given them enough self-motivation to play at a higher level. The Bucks have flirted with danger a number of times this season, but they are the guys who always find a way to win. Whether it’s a big shot, rebound or defensive stop, somebody always seems to make a big play when they need it most.

Michigan coach John Beilein said that “anybody can get you anytime” in the Big Ten. That’s been true for the other 11 teams, but the Buckeyes just seem unbeatable right now, even when they play poorly enough to lose.

2. Buckeyes won the game with defense. A lot will be made of William Buford and Jared Sullinger’s performance at the offensive end in the second half, but this game was won at the other end. After hitting 11 threes against Ohio State in the first meeting in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines were just 6-of-19 from behind the arc Thursday. After giving up so many big outside shots in that game, Matta decided to have his defender stick with their man at the three-point line, even on the weak side. They forced everything to the middle and made Darius Morris try to beat them off the dribble. He probably would have if not for Craft’s excellent on-ball defense.

Some teams can survive a bad outside shooting day, but not Michigan. They are second in the conference in made threes per game—behind Northwestern—and have attempted 34 more shots from behind the arc than anyone else. They truly are a team that lives and dies with outside shooting, which is evident in the fact they had only four attempts at the free throw line.

3. Buford is playing his best basketball. After knocking down a big three in the second half, Buford was get back up the court when he saw Matta pointing in his direction. As big as the shot was, he wasn’t getting props from the head coach. Instead, Matta was telling Buford not take the play off on defense. It’s a little reminder of how far Buford has come since he got to Columbus, and he is playing his best basketball as a junior.

Not only are his overall numbers up from his first two seasons, but Buford has been the guy to carry the team when Sullinger can’t do it alone. Jon Diebler and David Lighty have both had their moments, but Buford has become the guy to take and make big shots in the wake of Evan Turner.

His scoring average is down less than a point from last year, but he’s playing five fewer minutes every game. He has also battled some health issues, as well as a tweaked ankle, but Buford is shooting a higher percentage from the field (46%), behind the arc (43.4%) and at the free throw line (81.6%)  than he did last year. His assist/turnover ratio is also among the top 15 in the conference. He has made 20 of 23 free throw attempts in Big Ten play,  and is shooting over 54-percent from behind the arc against the conference.

4. Craft is still a freshman. There were times Thursday when Aaron Craft looked like he was Mike Conley Jr. out there. The way he picked the pocket of Morris or the way he spun the ball off the backboard after a fancy spin move in the paint; it was a thing of beauty. Let’s not forget there were times were Conley didn’t look Conley, at least not the one we saw during the tournament. Despite the fact he often plays like a seasoned veteran, Craft is still a freshman with a lot of learning to do.

Thursday was not his best game of the season. He made some big plays to help his team pull out the victory, but he also made some careless mistakes. He got in early foul trouble, turned the ball over four times and had only one assist in 33 minutes. When he struggles, the Buckeyes have trouble getting their half-court offense going, but give Craft credit, he stayed with it. Even when he wasn’t playing well, he gave it 100-percent at both ends of the floor, and the Buckeyes wouldn’t have won the game without him.

5. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to the way games are called. Michigan fans had to feel like they were get jobbed by the referees during Thursday’s game. Ohio State fans probably felt the same way. Both Matta and Beilein were careful not let their full distaste for the way the game was called shine through in their post-game press conferences. Beilein even went as far as to say he was baiting himself into saying something bad about the refs.

He didn’t, but someone needs to. It went beyond favoritism Thursday, the calls were just plain wrong. Whenever there was an obvious one to be made, the refs swallowed their whistle. Just when it looked like they were going to let them play, they called some ticky-tack foul away from the ball. All I’m asking for is a little consistency. I think that’s all Matta and Beilein were looking for as well.

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