COLUMBUS — The NCAA calls it March Madness, which Big Ten basketball coaches agree is a fitting enough trademark but for one small problem.
"They forgot about January and February," Ohio State’s Thad Matta said.
Have you seen OSU and Michigan lately?
The Wolverines' visit to Columbus today will match rivals whose seasons have resembled wayward EKGs. By now, for the sake of their supporters' own readings, it is best advised to just throw up your hands and savor the ride — the good, the bad, and that home loss to Penn State.
Just as Ohio State began drilling through rock bottom, with a loss to Penn State marking its fifth defeat in six games, the Buckeyes politely declined a looming National Invitation Tournament invite and rocketed back into the polls. No. 22 OSU (19-5, 6-5 Big Ten) has won three straight, including upset road victories at No. 21 Wisconsin and 16th-ranked Iowa.
Meanwhile, just as the 15th-ranked Wolverines (17-6, 9-2) became the first college team in 27 years to take down three straight top-10 teams and raced to their best conference start since 1977, the bandwagon began making drop-offs. Michigan has dropped two of its last three games, with leading scorers Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III combining for 27 points in double-digit losses at Indiana and Iowa.
If you’re scoring at home, January began with OSU third in the polls and Michigan unranked and ended with the Buckeyes unranked and UM in the top 10. Now, both are ranked, though again trending in opposite directions.
Matta calls the season’s first rivalry meeting "another Big Ten game." He and UM coach John Beilein both know a season is neither salvaged nor broken in February.
Asked Monday if he planned to shake up Michigan’s lineup, Beilein asked for perspective. A team that starts four first or second-year players — and remains without preseason All-American forward Mitch McGary — is tied atop the conference with Michigan State. The Wolverines were never going to breeze through the conference.
“I don’t think there’s any consideration of changing any rotation,” Beilein said.
He added: "When we went to practice [Sunday], the message was, ’We’re in first place.’ Nothing really changes. ... We’ve just got to try to win as many games as we can, and see what happens."
It is safer to read more into Ohio State’s revival, if only because its straits were more alarming. Senior guard Lenzelle Smith called the Buckeyes’ loss to the last-place Nittany Lions "embarrassing," saying at the time, "Every other team in our conference is laughing at us right now."
The Buckeyes lacked a dynamic go-to scorer, could not shoot — they shot less than 40 percent in each of their last three losses — and did not have an offsetting inside presence. Even dunks were a struggle.
"That's why they don't let coaches carry handguns on the sideline," Matta said of the pinballing missed slams. "Not for the player, for themselves."
Yet after dropping out of the polls for the first time in four years, OSU held a players-only meeting, and, coincidence or not, have not lost since.
A more tangible reason: The Big Ten’s best defense is starting to flash a little game on the other end.
Enigmatic top scorer LaQuinton Ross (14.2 points) is becoming on more than off; swapping forward Sam Thompson for guard Shannon Scott in the starting lineup has helped both players; 6-foot-11 junior Amir Williams is playing stronger inside; and senior Aaron Craft is enjoying his best offensive stretch of the season — his 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting carried the Buckeyes at Iowa.
The shots are falling, too. OSU has hit 15 3-pointers in its past two games, all the while both times shooting better than 42 percent from beyond the arc after only reaching the threshold twice in its first nine Big Ten games.
Perhaps the biggest lesson — again — is never writing off Matta, the only coach to lead a program to the past four Sweet 16s. Always, it seems, there is a method to the madness — in January, February, March, and all.
CRAFT, HAYES HONORED: It was another Big Ten awards sweep for northwest Ohio, with Craft and Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes claiming the league’s top honors this week.
Craft, a Liberty-Benton graduate, was named Big Ten player of the week while Hayes, a Whitmer graduate, was the top freshman. The pair also swept the awards in early January.
Craft led the Buckeyes at Iowa, where he became the first Big Ten player since Charlie Bell of Michigan State in 2001 to have 17 points, six assists, and six steals in a single game. Hayes, one of the top contenders for league freshman of the year, averaged 14.0 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals in leading No. 21 Wisconsin to wins over Illinois and No. 9 Michigan State.