The Big Ten served up yet another “game of the year” candidate in Michigan’s extra period triumph over Ohio State. This game featured just about everything–impressive defensive plays, back-and-forth big shots down the stretch, and plenty of scoring. Truth be told, you probably couldn’t construct a team more liable to be involved in aesthetically pleasing games than 2012-13 Michigan.
The Wolverines have the nation’s most efficient offense, driven by that most crowd-pleasing of attributes: fantastic accuracy from the field. Let’s face it, we like to watch teams make shots, whether it be vicious dunks or feathery threes, and this squad is outstanding at both.
Furthermore, Michigan doesn’t meddle in that “ugly” aspect of offense, drawing fouls and taking endless trips to the foul line, and the Wolverines also don’t make sloppy passes on a regular basis. This offense shows that a fast pace isn’t as crucial to watch-ability as a lot of people think.
On top of that picture-perfect offense, Michigan also isn’t all that great on defense, meaning its opponent has opportunities to make pretty plays of its own. Add it all up, and you get incredible games like Michigan’s last two. Against the Buckeyes, it was a season-best 14 made threes that carried the Wolverines to victory, despite what you’d be led to believe was an incredible defensive performance by Aaron Craft (sorry, we’re going there again).
Look, we’re very impressed with Craft’s quickness and footwork on the defensive end. For his size, defenders don’t get any better. Our issue is that the hype of Aaron Craft’s defense outweighs the actual impact of Aaron Craft’s defense, and this game was a perfect example. If you went strictly by the highlight reel, Dick Vitale’s commentary, and Twitter, you’d conclude that Craft’s performance last night cemented his place as the national defensive player of the year.
Yet, when you look at the actual results on the court, the team Craft was defending scored 1.19 points per possession, a lofty figure even for a powerhouse offense like Michigan’s. Sure, basketball is a team game, and one great defender can’t stifle a great offense on his own, but look at how the Wolverines scored their points.
Trey Burke, Craft’s primary assignment, had a supremely efficient night, scoring 16 points on 12 shots and dishing eight assists against just two turnovers. Michigan’s wings, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas, combined for 34 points on 22 shots. Ohio State’s interior defense was quite good, as Michigan shot a lowly 39 percent on twos–it was perimeter defense that lost this game for the Buckeyes, yet the overwhelming sentiment coming out of the game is that Aaron Craft is the world’s greatest defender. The visuals of his defense are mighty impressive, but the plaudits are overblown given the actual impact on the game.
That dead horse aside, this was both an encouraging performance and a missed opportunity for Ohio State. Truth be told, the Buckeyes really should have won last night. It’s not often that Michigan will shoot 58 percent from three and not decimate its opponent, yet Ohio State performed so well in every other area that it nearly pulled the upset. LaQuinton Ross had the best game of his young career, chipping in 16 points and five offensive rebounds. If Ross can emerge as a credible scoring option behind Deshaun Thomas, this Buckeyes squad becomes extremely dangerous as we head into March.
For Michigan, pulling out this win keeps its Big Ten title fate in its own hands, as the Wolverines remain one game behind Indiana in the loss column with the rematch in Ann Arbor looming on the season’s final day. It doesn’t get any easier over the next week, as Michigan visits Wisconsin and Michigan State in back-to-back games. If the Wolverines run that gauntlet unscathed, there’s a very good chance that the rematch with Indiana will be for the title.
Elsewhere, Purdue managed to pull away late from a hard-guarding Penn State squad. The odds of the Nittany Lions becoming the first B1G team to go 0-18 jumped dramatically with this loss and now stand at 41 percent according to KenPom. This Saturday’s visit to Nebraska presents the best remaining opportunity for Pat Chambers’ squad to avoid this dubious bit of history.
Tonight, it’s a doubleheader on BTN, starting with the 6pm CT tip of Minnesota at Michigan State. Minnesota’s offensive glass will be fascinating to watch, as the Spartans are allowing Big Ten opponents to retrieve just 28 percent of their misses. If that well is shut off, it’s hard to see the Gophers scoring enough to prevail in what should be a loud Breslin Center. At 8pm CT, Iowa visits Wisconsin in a dramatic contrast of styles. The Hawkeyes’ struggling offense doesn’t figure to get healthy against the stout Badger defense, so Fran McCaffery’s squad will have to defend to stay in it.