Forget Tobacco Road.
The most-watched basketball artery this season was supposed to course through our backyard as once-in-a-generation forces made Ohio State and Michigan simultaneous power brokers in the nation’s best conference.
Now, well, when does spring football start?
All right, even the "Dewey defeats Truman" guys think we’re rushing judgment. But humbling recent losses have raised questions the rivals could not have foreseen weeks earlier.
Is it possible an Ohio State team in transition just isn’t very good this year? And is Michigan too inexperienced, too soft, to be elite?
For both programs, a season that began with them ranked in the top five and continued with UM rising to No. 1 for the first time in two decades is at a crossroads.
The No. 18 Buckeyes (18-7, 8-5 Big Ten) and seventh-ranked Wolverines (22-4, 9-4) have a month to prove themselves before the NCAA Tournament because, so far — once you look past OSU’s recent pedigree, Michigan’s offensive riches, and the Big Ten’s vitality — they have proven little.
A 71-49 loss at Wisconsin on Sunday dropped OSU to 1-7 against ranked teams and 0-5 on the road against opponents with a top-50 RPI, while Michigan’s 75-52 defeat at Michigan State last week cast anew doubts of its own. The Wolverines have lost three of five games and are 1-4 against the current top 25.
The Big Ten’s perch atop the sport makes these struggles deceptive. Neither OSU nor Michigan have a truly bad loss — or, for that matter, any loss to a team outside the top-30 in the RPI. Five of the Buckeyes’ defeats are against top-10 teams — including No. 1 Indiana, No. 4 Michigan State, and Michigan — while UM’s four losses have come against top-20 teams away from Crisler Arena.
Still, they are not — yet — who we thought they were.
We thought OSU would be more balanced. We underplayed the loss of Jared Sullinger and Libbey graduate William Buford, saw a team with former McDonald’s All-Americans — sophomore guard Shannon Scott and sophomore center Amir Williams — in complementary roles, and figured coach Thad Matta would make it all work as always. The Buckeyes had won five of the last seven Big Ten titles. Surely, someone — anyone — would develop into a reliable second scorer behind preseason All-American Deshaun Thomas.
But games are not played on paper. They are played on your television — and the same rerun is showing on loop. Guard Aaron Craft leads a gritty defense, but no one has become an offensive sidekick to Thomas, who averages a league-high 20.2 points. When the Buckeyes guard like they did at Wisconsin, they have no chance.
“[I] lost it. Just with saying, 'Where's our defense? I don't know who's in your jerseys right now," Matta told reporters Sunday. "We've seen the results. If we're not going to play defense, we're not a good basketball team. So if we're going to rely on trying to outscore opponents, that's not going to happen.”
Michigan, meanwhile, faces the opposite problem. The Wolverines have style — their 76.2 points per game is second in the Big Ten — but lack the toughness that comes with experience. A team that starts three freshmen too often displays a passing interest in defense and can be overwhelmed. While sophomore guard Trey Burke continues to burnish his national player-of-the-year credentials, who shows up alongside him on a given night is anybody’s guess.
In the loss at MSU, starters Tim Hardaway, Jr., Mitch McGary, and Glenn Robinson III combined for eight points on 4-of-20 shooting. Not to mention the Spartans outrebounded UM 40-28 — including 14-6 in offensive boards.
"There are all sorts of motivating techniques that you’ll do to make sure they know it’s urgent that you play at a higher level, you play hard and you also play smart," coach John Beilein said Monday when asked about his team’s toughness. "The light just comes on at some point. There’s a time in everybody’s career where they’ll understand that I’m sticking my nose in there and I can do some things I maybe was not comfortable doing a year or two ago."
So where do OSU and UM go from here?
Last year, they provided diverging road maps for dealing with adversity. The Buckeyes — who close the regular season with home dates against Minnesota, Michigan State, and Illinois, and trips to Northwestern and Indiana — momentarily lost their way with three losses in a five-game February stretch before tearing to the Final Four.
Michigan — which has a slightly more favorable stretch run with home games against Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan State, along with trips to Purdue and Penn State — endured its worst defeat at a less opportune time. The Wolverines lost to OSU by 22 points in the Big Ten Tournament and were stunned by 13th-seeded Ohio in its opening NCAA Tournament game.
Can Ohio State and/or Michigan regroup, embrace the madness, and make this a March to remember? It says here one of them will.
If not, spring football starts in 15 days. But who’s counting?
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.