Ann Arbor — Eventually, the Big Ten champion will show its true colors.
One of these days, one of the handful of contenders will take their show on the road again in a marquee matchup and come away with a real victory, not just a moral one.
But until then, the balance of power will keep teetering the way it has for more than a month now, sort of the way the lead did late Tuesday night in No. 2 Michigan's 76-74 overtime win over 10th-ranked Ohio State at a sold-out Crisler Center.
Ragged and raucous throughout, this was another entertaining Big Ten tilt, to be sure. And for coach John Beilein, who celebrated his 60th birthday with his team's 21st win and a couple rejected shots at closing time, it was both a relief and another reminder of what's yet to come as the Big Ten's best begin the second half of their conference slate.
"It's almost tomorrow," the coach sighed, before checking his watch and realizing it already was past midnight. "It is tomorrow? Well, thank God the birthday's over. But it was a good one."
And that means this rollercoaster ride is only going to get better for the Wolverines. Because if Tuesday's any indication, it's going to be white knuckles — and split lips and bruised egos and, yes, blown calls — all the way to the frantic finish next month.
A three-pointer that shouldn't count does, and a late foul that should be called isn't. One minute the game's in the capable hands of star point guard Trey Burke, the next it's snatched away by his nemesis, Aaron Craft. At the other end, Craft's ready to stick in the dagger, only to have a potential winning shot swatted from behind by — guess who? — Burke.
Back and forth it went like that for the better part of two hours Tuesday night, and when it was finally — mercifully — over a half-hour before midnight, Michigan's coach and his players were a portrait of exhausted elation.
But a day earlier, Beilein — then a man in his 50s — was reminding everyone to "look at the big picture."
"I don't want to make too much of it — 'Well, if you lose (at home), it's doomsday,'" he insisted. "You've just gotta keep playing and try to protect home court every time — and win every time."
Every time. That's the message, because that's the reality in what is unquestionably college basketball's best conference this season. The top five teams are now a combined 20-2 at home in league play, with the only stumbles being top-ranked Indiana's loss to Wisconsin and Wisconsin's to Michigan State.
Asked after Tuesday's loss what it would take for one team to separate itself from the rest, Ohio State coach Thad Matta just sort of chuckled. His team had weathered an initial storm from the Wolverines and shot nearly 60 percent from the field in the second half, yet still headed home empty-handed.
"Obviously, we didn't have quite enough tonight, but it takes an effort like that," said Matta, whose Buckeyes lost by three in similar fashion in East Lansing a couple weeks ago. "I'll say this: You've got to give Michigan credit. It took a heck of an effort on their part. The plays that they made were tremendous plays.
"We just needed to make our own luck there down the stretch. But in this league, it's about getting knocked down and getting back up again."
And to Michigan's credit, that's exactly what they did, holding serve at home — they're 14-0 at Crisler this season and 29-1 the last two — while serving notice that they're more resilient than you might think.
Barely 24 hours after being supplanted atop the national polls by Indiana, which knocked off Michigan in Saturday night's showdown in Bloomington, the Wolverines were back at it, facing the team responsible for their only other conference loss.
Of course, the Buckeyes were facing something else, too. Most notably, a curiously-colored crowd that was as loud as any this building has seen in a long, long time. The "Maize Out" was a raging success, no question, assuming you like noisy fans and even noisier apparel.
But amid the din in Ann Arbor, where the border-war rival has become a four-letter word again, the Wolverines were facing their own limitations.
Way back when
This was the first basketball meeting between these teams in which both were ranked in the top 10. Yet considering the blows that've been traded the last two seasons, including last month's down-to-the-wire finish in Columbus, it sure felt familiar, didn't it?
Enough so, in fact, that coming out of a timeout before the final possession in regulation, Aaron Craft, Ohio State's defensive dynamo, couldn't help but mention it to Trey Burke, his Michigan counterpart and former AAU teammate.
"It was kind of funny," recalled Burke, who finished with 16 points, eight assists and the eventual winning basket in overtime, not to mention a clutch defensive play. "He said, 'Doesn't this seem like déjà vu? … Doesn't it seem like were just doing this a couple weeks ago?'"
It was a few weeks ago, actually, that Craft had gotten the better of Burke in an individual matchup that ultimately decided the final result. Michigan quickly found itself down 21 in that one before rallying to come up just short, 56-53, in Columbus
Tuesday night, though, it was the Ann Arbor crowd roaring at the first TV timeout. And for good reason, as the Wolverines built an early cushion this time. Back-to-back 3-pointers by freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III sparked a 12-0 run and offered Michigan hope their kids would avoid the kind of stage fright they'd showed in previous big-pressure Big Ten games.
Stauskas was held scoreless in the first meeting with Ohio State, and he admitted prior to Tuesday's game he was looking for a little redemption. Saturday, it was Robinson's turn at the freshman flop, as he played all 40 minutes at Assembly Hall but didn't score until a dunk in the final 70 seconds.
Neither was a factor again after Tuesday's initial flurry, though, until Robinson finally asserted himself midway through the second half as Ohio State threatened to run away. The freshman's acrobatic three-point play sparked a 12-2 run that was all Tim Hardaway after that — three of his five consecutive three-pointers — to erase an eight-point deficit.
From there, it was nip and tuck and push and pull and hit and miss — often on the same possession — the rest of the way.
Right up until the Buckeyes inexplicably forgot to give their best player, Deshaun Thomas, the ball when it mattered most. (No shots in overtime?)
Right up until Burke went from hero to goat and back again, dribbling his way into Craft's web and a costly turnover … then scrambling to make amends with a block on Craft at the other end of the court. ("I ran like my life depended on it," Burke said, "and I was — some way — gonna get the ball back.")
Right up until Craft nearly did the same, but for a whistle that didn't blow. Down two, with 7.6 seconds to play, Craft drove past Burke for the potential tying basket, only to get rejected again, this time by Hardaway, who admits he expected a whistle.
"It's up to the refs to call that call," Hardaway said, "and they let it go."
And so it goes, right?
"I just saw it," Matta said, when asked later if he'd seen a replay of Craft's final shot attempt. "It is what it is."
He didn't need to say any more, really. It was another night on the road in the Big Ten, is what it was. Undoubtedly, there'll be more to come before this race is over.
Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. reacts after Ohio State makes a turnover in overtime Tuesday night in Ann Arbor. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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