ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan basketball entered the weekend as the consensus No. 3 team in the country with only one loss on its resume. But still, there were doubters who wanted to see Juwan Howard’s team pick up a true signature win.
So Michigan did what few across the country could this season. It went into Columbus against the No. 4 team in the country, caught the Buckeyes on a day they shot 50% from beyond the arc and 53.5% overall, and won the game anyway.
The top two teams in the country -- Gonzaga and Baylor -- don’t have any losses this season. The only team to beat No. 3 Michigan did so at home. So for the Wolverines to go on the road and take down No. 4 Ohio State -- it’s hard not to call it the best win of the entire college basketball season.
Sure, Ohio State has one other loss at home: a two-point setback Jan. 19 against Purdue. But those Buckeyes were 11-3 and ranked No. 15 in the nation. They hadn’t quite hit their stride.
The team Michigan met Sunday was on a seven-game winning streak and named a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by the selection committee. No, this wasn’t a projection by some bracketologist. The actual committee members who decide the NCAA Tournament field said as of now, Ohio State is a No. 1 seed.
There are no true road games in the Big Dance, so what Michigan faced this weekend was, quite literally, more difficult than a Final Four game.
Not to mention the Wolverines were still just eight days removed from a 23-day layoff.
For most of the season, Michigan has won by jumping out to massive leads and coasting to the finish line. The Wolverines led Minnesota by 30 and Wisconsin by 40 in two impressive wins at the Crisler Center. Earlier this week, Michigan built a 17-point lead against Rutgers and simply drained most of the second-half clock with stifling defense.
But Sunday’s game was nothing like that. Michigan was never allowed to get comfortable.
Howard accurately likened the battle to a boxing match -- punching, counter-punching and trying to survive blow after blow from a hated rival.
Michigan started the game with three straight empty possessions and fell behind by a couple of buckets. It answered with two excellent extra passes to Eli Brooks for triples to get right back in the game.
A few minutes later, Ohio State built a 19-14 lead behind a pair of difficult three-point makes from Grand Rapids native Duane Washington. Michigan responded with an 8-0 run to take a small lead of its own.
The Buckeyes, to their credit, did much of the same. A six-point Michigan lead late in the first half was erased by Justice Sueing and E.J. Liddell buckets. A two-point halftime lead for Michigan was flipped on the very first possession by another Liddell triple.
For Michigan, a team that has spent so much of the Big Ten season with a double-digit lead, this was a crucial test of mental toughness, and it came in the most difficult environment so far -- yes, even without a packed Value City Arena.
Brooks was the first player to answer the bell on offense, but then it was Chaundee Brown, who hit his first three three-point attempts after scoring just seven total points in the first two games back from the shutdown.
Then, Isaiah Livers took his turn, drilling an and-one to tie the game at nine early and then a pair of critical threes to keep Michigan in the game at the start of the second half.
Mike Smith was lethal in the open court. It’s no coincidence the Wolverines hit 10 of 13 three-point attempts in the first half. Smith was generating open looks all over the floor, and even though water found its level from beyond the arc in the second half, he scored 11 points and finished with seven assists.
But when it was time to close the game, Michigan went to its star freshman, the 7-footer who proved too much for an Ohio State team that doesn’t play anyone taller than 6-foot-8.
Hunter Dickinson scored a team-high 22 points while grabbing nine rebounds -- five of them back-breaking offensive boards that turned potential opportunities for Ohio State to take or extend the lead and instead gave Michigan crucial baskets late in the second half.
Early in the game, Dickinson turned and passed out of double teams, finding Brooks and Smith for open three-pointers that jumpstarted Michigan’s offense. When the Buckeyes adjusted to cover Michigan’s hot shooters, Dickinson went to work against the smaller Liddell and Kyle Young, bullying his way to the bucket and the offensive glass.
In the end, it was about as complete a performance as anyone could have imagined. Michigan had six players score at least nine points. It dished out 19 assists on 31 made baskets. It won the rebounding battle convincingly despite falling behind in that regard early.
Michigan went into Columbus -- a place it hadn’t won since 2014 -- and beat a projected No. 1 seed that had its Big Ten championship hopes on the line. Most importantly, Michigan beat Ohio State at its best. As good as Liddell, Washington and C.J. Walker are, they probably can’t do much better than a combined 68 points on 25 of 42 shooting.
Fans wanted to know if Michigan belongs amongst the top teams in college basketball this season, and while Gonzaga and Baylor are still in a tier of their own, I think the Wolverines answered any questions.
Michigan still has work to do. Home games against Iowa and Illinois will determine the Big Ten title race, and a back-to-back against Michigan State to end the season will have major implications for both teams. Don’t overlook a road matchup with a desperate Indiana squad, either.
But after Sunday’s performance, there’s no denying the Wolverines -- and Howard, too, for that matter -- belong in the conversation with the nation’s best.
And let’s be honest, doing it against That Team Down South, in its own gym, means a little something extra.