Any college basketball analyst expounding on Ohio State has one true but tired narrative: words like “gritty” and “tough” and “hard-nosed” are thrown around in vast quantity, especially when describing Buckeye point guard Aaron Craft. Craft is deserving of praise, but I don’t think Michigan fans are alone in the opinion that hearing about his hustle and defensive ability has become exhausting.
Michigan, in its 70-60 win over Ohio State on Tuesday night, flipped that narrative on its head. Against a team whose leader’s toughness is often described at length with lusty hyperbole, Michigan was simply tougher. What’s even more surprising is that, despite some fans’ short memory after Michigan laid an egg against Iowa on the road, toughing out road wins is becoming a habit for this season’s Wolverines.
John Beilein already shook off the curse of the Kohl Center earlier this year with Michigan’s first win against Wisconsin in Madison since 1999. The Wolverines won at Michigan State, a place where they got blown out just one year ago. And their win on Tuesday in Columbus was Michigan’s first road win over the Buckeyes since 2003.
That trifecta — beating Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State on the road in one season — hasn’t been accomplished since 1993.
Arguably for the first time since Beilein arrived on Michigan’s campus, the coach has himself a very good road team. The Wolverines are 5-2 on the road in the Big Ten this season. For comparison, consider Michigan’s 4-5 road record last year’s conference season. Beilein’s team is just finding ways to win in tough environments that it hadn’t found before — and it’s perhaps the biggest reason Michigan is sitting in first place in the Big Ten standings.
“All these road wins, they’re part of it,” Beilein said during his press conference after Tuesday night’s win. “This is unusual in this league right now, to have the road wins that have been coming around to us or to other programs. Really, it gives these kids a great deal of confidence, as we still have two more on the road. We’ve been in hostile situations — you can’t get worse than those four.”
Maybe it was the tough road environments early in the season — at Iowa State and at Duke — that prepared the Wolverines for the gauntlet they would face in its own conference. Maybe the run in last year’s NCAA tournament solidified the team’s resolve and confidence. There aren’t any stats to point to our trends to analyze when explaining why a team suddenly is out-toughing some of the toughest environments in the country. Michigan is simply getting it done against teams it hasn’t been able to beat before, and the Buckeyes are just the latest victims.
Michigan’s tenacity against Ohio State was most evident in the rebounding category. The Wolverines dominated the glass on Tuesday, pulling down an uncharacteristic 42 percent of their misses. That was thanks in a large part to the efforts of Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III; Morgan racked up six offensive boards while Robinson had four. Michigan was very good on the defensive glass, as well, grabbing over 75 percent of Ohio State’s (many) missed shots.
“We definitely wanted to limit them to one shot, make it hard for them to get offensive putbacks,” Jordan Morgan said after the game. “It was a team mentality on offense. We had guys in there that probably shouldn’t have been in there because they should have been in transition. But we came up with some loose balls and really fought for rebounds that could have went either way. That really made the difference in the game, I think.”
Taken in the context of Michigan’s Big Ten season, the fortitude the Wolverines displayed in this game is even more impressive. This matchup was Michigan’s fourth game in nine days, with three of those games coming on the road. It was coming off of an embarassing beatdown at the hand of Iowa just three days before. Taking all of this into account, this may have been Michigan’s toughest win of the season.
Nik Stauskas overcame a great defensive effort by Craft, quietly scoring 15 points on only nine shots and grabbing three rebounds. Glenn Robinson III hit a pressure-packed corner 3-pointer to put Michigan up seven with two and a half minutes to play. Derrick Walton was perhaps the star of the game, scoring 13 second-half points and pulling down an unbelievable 10 rebounds to go along with six assists. Again and again, Walton drove into the teeth of Ohio State’s frontcourt and came away with points, either by finishing himself or creating for Jon Horford.
It wasn’t a perfect game but, individually and collectively, Michigan gutted it out and got one of its biggest wins of the season.
“It’s really great to be at the top of this conference,” Beilein said. “But we still have six games to go with some really tough games coming up.”
However tough the remaining schedule is, it won’t be tougher than what Michigan has faced to this point. And here’s the thing about tough games: this season, Michigan tends to win them.