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ANN ARBOR — When the Ohio State basketball team visits Michigan today, it will be the rivals’ first regular-season top-10 showdown.
Think about that.
Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft said name the sport; a game between these longtime football titans is kind of a big deal.
"It's Ohio State-Michigan," the Findlay native said last month. "It could be synchronized swimming, you always want to win."
Still, the best rivalries require big games with big stakes — showcase contests that can momentarily steal our attention away from that latest can’t-miss four-star running back.
OSU and UM basketball have displayed an uncanny aptitude in the 64 years since the Associated Press released its first national poll of never being simultaneously elite during the regular season.
The 10th-ranked Buckeyes’ trip to No. 3 Michigan (20-2, 7-2 Big Ten) qualifies as a big one.
The 9 p.m. game officially kicks off the second half of the nation’s most anticipated conference championship race. Top-ranked Indiana (20-2, 8-1) captured the Big Ten lead with an 81-73 victory over former No. 1 UM on Saturday in Bloomington while the Wolverines, OSU (17-4, 7-2), and No. 12 Michigan State (18-4, 7-2) all lurk one game behind.
Adding to the intensity: These four teams have eight games left against each other.
Michigan guard Trey Burke and his teammates also look to settle a score from the Wolverines’ 56-53 loss in Columbus earlier this season.
Burke is a national player of the year candidate, but has never quite been able to solve Craft, regarded among the top on-the-ball defenders in the country.
The sophomore from Columbus had a combined 18 points on 6-of-22 shooting and 13 turnovers in Michigan’s two losses to OSU last year and finished with 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting, four assists, and four turnovers at OSU last month.
Michigan coach John Beilein said the team practiced sets Monday to move Burke away from Craft.
Though UM looks to have the edge this season, trying something new couldn’t hurt. Ohio State coach Thad Matta is 17-3 against the Wolverines.
"In the last decade or so, Ohio State has really done very well against Michigan in basketball," Beilein said. "We're finally getting up to the point between our facilities and our recruiting ... we've been in catch-up with a lot of Big Ten teams. We will find out in years to come how caught up we are, but [OSU] has a tremendous program."
In the polls, at least, it’s now OSU having to catch up to UM, though the Buckeyes haven’t strayed far. It could provide just the jolt the rivalry’s hardwood edition needs.
Strangely, an OSU program that has made seven Final Four trips since 1960 and Michigan, which spent parts of 17 seasons between 1963 and 1997 in the top 10, have never been fully in sync.
Even when Toledo native Jimmy Jackson’s final season at OSU coincided with the Fab Five’s freshmen year in 1991-1992, Michigan did not rise higher than 11th during the regular season.
That year, the Big Ten champion Buckeyes beat Michigan 68-58 in Ann Arbor and 77-66 in Columbus before the sixth-seeded Wolverines upset No. 1 seed OSU 75-71 in overtime of the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.
On the gridiron, the persistently high stakes made the OSU-UM rivalry larger than life. Could a shred of that passion rub off on basketball?
"People try to draw the comparison to football, but in basketball, we just played them a couple weeks ago and could maybe play them again in the Big Ten Tournament," Matta said. "In my opinion, this is more along the lines of a great Big Ten matchup, just in terms of where this league is this year. It’s hard, from game to game. ... You don’t think too much along the lines of the rivalry."
Contact David Briggs at:
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Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.