Not Quite The Game, But A Big One Nonetheless

It'd be tough for any rivalry to match that of the one between the Ohio State and Michigan football teams. But the battle between the Buckeyes and Wolverines on the hardwood tonight will still have big time implications for both teams in the Big Ten.

It's not The Game -- the schedule dictates that it can't be -- but for Aaron Craft, there's still something that's unique about the hardwood showdowns between Ohio State and Michigan.

"There's always something special about playing against Michigan," the Buckeyes point guard said. "Bragging rights or whatever it is, it's always great to play against them. The energy in the gym is a little higher, regardless of if they're here or we're there. It's always exciting to play against them."

With just one regular season matchup scheduled between the two teams this year, tonight's Big Ten battle could very well mark Craft's last chance to play against "That Team Up North." In four seasons, the Findlay, Ohio native has seen the Wolverines transform from a program on the rise into a national title contender, as evidenced by a 2013 campaign that saw U-M end its season in the national title game with a loss to Louisville.

Factor in former point guard and Columbus native Trey Burke -- who last season was named the national player of the year -- and the Wolverines are a program whose recent accolades are beginning to rival that of the Buckeyes, perhaps even more so than they do on the gridiron.

"They've done a tremendous job of building that program," OSU head coach Thad Matta said of Michigan. "It's kind of back to the old Michigan just in terms of the success that they're having."

Michigan has managed to maintain that success in the ongoing season -- one that has presented its fair share of challenges throughout the past year.

In addition to having to replace Burke, who declared for the NBA Draft following his sophomore season, the Wolverines have also been without big man Mitch McGary since Dec. 14, as the sophomore forward has been recovering from a back injury. But despite the departures and distractions that have occurred since last season's national title game appearance, Michigan has accumulated a 17-6 record, an even more impressive 9-2 mark in the Big Ten and currently finds itself ranked 15th in the nation heading into Tuesday's tussle.

According to Craft, the sustained success of the Wolverines has stemmed from their offense and the many ways in which they can go about putting the ball in the basket.

"Obviously Trey was a great player last year and you kind of knew what you were getting going into a game with Trey," Craft said. "They're spreading it out. They've got a lot more options on their offense now and it makes it a lot more difficult to defend."

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The Wolverines' top option comes in the form of 6-6 guard Nik Stauskas, who has paced Michigan with a team with 17 points per game in his sophomore season. Once thought to be merely a three-point shooter, Stauskas has showcased an all-around game this season -- one that Matta knew that he had in him.

"I saw that in him last year. I remember watching personnel clips of him and saying, ‘Man, this guy has got a lot to his game," Matta said of Stauskas. "Obviously this year, with the subtraction of a couple of guys, his role has elevated, it's probably become more magnified. Obviously he's a great player, but he's a handful."

Stauskas stands as one of the largest reasons why Michigan currently sits alongside Michigan State in first place in the Big Ten standings -- a conference title race that the Buckeyes aren't out of just yet. At 19-5 on the season and 6-5 in league play, No. 22 Ohio State still has a shot at winning a Big Ten title and a victory over the Wolverines would go a long way toward accomplishing just that.

With seven games still remaining on their schedule, the Buckeyes aren't ready to make the conference crown their chief motivation just yet. But a win over Michigan would certainly make for an interesting final stretch of the season -- one that could be viewed as improbable given all that Ohio State has been through since the calendar turned to 2014.

"Our whole concern moving forward is about us," Matta said. "Whoever coined the phrase March Madness forgot about January and February."

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