In what easily could have been considered a "trap" game, Ohio State survived a Big Ten quarterfinal matchup with arch-rival Michigan 72-62 Friday afternoon.
The primary story was 7-1 freshman center Greg Oden, who dominated the Wolverines - especially in the second half.
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Big Ten pick scored 22 points on top of eight rebounds and four blocks. Oden was a destructive force against man-to-man defense inside and look as comfortable as he's been all season.
Good for Michigan, Bad for Ohio State
* Although Michigan is way past the point of settling for moral victories in a season that's likely to result in another appearance in the NIT, you've got to appreciate the effort shown last Saturday and again on Friday by the Wolverines. Michigan did play like they had nothing to lose and it showed. Unfortunately in college basketball, effort is only one part of the equation and one piece of the puzzle.
* On three separate occasions, Ohio State jumped out to a double-digit second-half lead. Those leads vanished the first two times largely because of critical outside shots by the Wolverines. The second run, which led to Michigan closing to within 52-49 with 7:47 left in the game, was fueled by poor perimeter defense by the Buckeyes allowing Jerret Smith and Lester Abram wide-open three-pointers. Every time Ohio State made a run, Michigan countered because Ohio State relaxed defensively. The flip side, of course, is that Ohio State answered every Michigan challenge.
* Ohio State head coach Thad Matta made a point to say at halftime they wanted, "rebounding and defense." While Ohio State played inconsistent defense, it's safe to say he could not have been pleased with the rebounding. The Buckeyes were dominated on the boards by a more athletic and aggressive front line. Of course, this is not to say Oden and Othello Hunter aren't plenty athletic, but it was strength in numbers for Michigan who went at the Buckeyes in waves. The combination of seniors Courtney Sims, Brent Petway, Ekpe Udoh and DeShawn Sims provided a steady diet of offensive rebounds (22). Petway's freakish athleticism especially caused Matt Terwilliger enormous problems in the 12 minutes he was in the game. Ohio State's wings along with Oden and Hunter will have to be more effective on the glass during the rest of the postseason.
* Quietly, senior Lester Abram played one of his better games of the season for Michigan. The forward has been only a shell of his former self thinking back to a stellar sophomore season. But Friday, Abram scored 13 points, had four assists and didn't commit a turnover as he made some clutch plays throughout the game keeping the Wolverines alive. Although Abram's shot has never returned after numerous injuries, it was pleasant to see a good performance out of such a gritty performer.
* Other than weakside rebounding, Ohio State's achilles heel defensively continues to be getting back down the floor and locating a man. Once Ohio State gets set in it's halfcourt man-to-man (or zone), the Buckeyes are usually very tenacious. However, teams have found success early in the shot clock, especially after a turnover or made Buckeye shot, because Ohio State didn't get back on defense quickly enough. It goes without saying this could be a factor against Florida, North Carolina and a host of other possible opponents later down the line.
Good for Ohio State, Bad for Michigan
* After 30 points against North Carolina, who knew the less heard from Ron Lewis the better? That was the case Friday with the quietest 16 points Lewis has ever had. The senior forward was extremely efficient (5-of-8 from the field) having no turnovers. Because of his skills offensively, Lewis is a dangerous weapon when scoring within the flow of the offense.
* Speaking of flow, it was one of the best offensive performances of the season for the Buckeyes. Ohio State scored just 72 points on account of fewer possessions, but shot 50 percent from the field and committed just five turnovers. It didn't seem Ohio State forced any shots, missed too many entry passes, telegraphed any feeds or did much anything that could be considered detrimental to the team. It was, in a word or two, extremely efficient to say the least.
* While I found Michigan's strategy of guarding Oden with just one man a good one in the first two meetings between the two teams, I was scratching my head by the 10-minute mark of the second half. Michigan head coach Tommy Amaker has made it abundantly clear that he would take his chances putting just one player on Oden so they don't risk allowing open looks from the outside. But Friday it was also clear Oden was on his game and he single-handedly took over. I thought without shots falling for the Buckeyes (or Wolverines for that matter), Michigan had virtually nothing to lose by that time.
* It appears Oden has become completely comfortable at this point in the season. Over the last three weeks, I've seen enormous strides from Oden. When receiving the ball, Oden has made quicker decisions with the ball, shown better judgment, been more assertive and has shown added range, post moves and received more mileage out of his right hand. While a limited strong hand could account for several mistakes earlier in the season, lacking confidence due to that hand created many more. With Oden being completely confident, and Ohio State seemingly involving him more in the offense, the Buckeyes will stand a better chance of advancing these next few weeks.
* After scoring 17 points against the Buckeyes last Saturday, it was a surprise Dion Harris managed just 9 points on Friday. Through a little help of the Buckeye defense, Harris shot just 1-of-13 from the field and had five turnovers. Whether the United Center rims, confidence, pressing too hard or simply having a bad game, Harris was simply untracked. Jamar Butler did a terrific job on Harris early on and it seemed when Harris did have looks in the second half, he was off the mark.
It might not be readily apparent on the surface, but there are several small signs of life by this Ohio State team. There's still a lot to be desired in the intensity and consistency but these many close encounters can only help Ohio State in the long run.
Make no mistake, Ohio State is vulnerable. When Oden is in foul trouble, Terwilliger has not produced defensively. The Buckeyes' rebounding has been suspect and until recently, Ohio State sometimes made questionable decisions offensively.
Now, however, Ohio State has placed great value in protecting the ball. The Buckeyes have averaged less than eight turnovers a game for the past several weeks. Should some of the perimeter magic return from earlier in the season by way of three-point shooting, Ohio State will be extremely tough to beat.
It's baby steps for Ohio State. Perhaps an overused cliche, but it's true Ohio State could be a candidate for an early defeat - but they could also be a legitimate National Championship contender. The question remains: which Ohio State team will show up from here forward?