Originally posted on Fox Sports Ohio  |  Last updated 1/29/12
COLUMBUS, Ohio - A methodical Michigan team controlled the pace for a while, employed a defensive strategy that forced someone besides Jared Sullinger to score for Ohio State and showed glimpses of why many consider the Wolverines a year away from being really, really good. Those glimpses -- and these Wolverines -- ended up getting avalanched. Ohio State finished Sunday's game with a flurry of dunks and putbacks and won by 15. The Buckeyes seem to have an answer for seemingly every tactical move opposing coaches throw at them, a formula that starts with having a whole bunch of good players. Ohio State's 64-49 win revealed a couple of things about both teams and what two weeks ago was as jumbled and competitive a Big Ten race as there's been in years. One of those is that nobody is going to beat Ohio State in Columbus. The other is that although John Beilein is building a program at Michigan that can consistently compete for Big Ten titles and turn this into a can't-miss series, right now the Buckeyes are still the boss. No. 3 Ohio State is now alone in first place in the Big Ten, a half-game ahead of No. 25 Wisconsin and a game ahead of No. 22 Michigan and No. 11 Michigan State. The Buckeyes aren't flawless and aren't yet as intimidating as they were a year ago, when they won 34 games and were the NCAA Tournament's top overall seed. But this team is finding its stride and won Sunday with muscle. Lenzelle Smith, the fifth starter and an afterthought last season, scored 17 points and had 12 rebounds, leading four Buckeyes in double figures. "They have tremendous, tremendous long (and) talented guys," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "What might work as a box out against another team doesn't vs. them." At least four times Sunday, Smith took advantage of Michigan's double-teaming Sullinger by going to the rim basically unchallenged for putback baskets. A bigger, stronger Ohio State team pulled away with a 14-2 second-half spurt, won the rebounding battle 38-29 and its superior overall athleticism showed down the stretch as do-it-all point guard Aaron Craft was able to quicken the pace off of Michigan misses and Sullinger and William Buford provided exclamation-point finishes. Ohio State beat Michigan three times last year; all three were competitive games decided in the final minutes. Michigan's preferred pace (glacial) is frustrating to Ohio State, and its offensive patience and precision when its shots are dropping can be deflating. But to beat Ohio State -- especially on its home-court -- the 3-pointers have to go in, and Michigan made just 8-of-25 and shot under 36 percent overall on Sunday. Michigan didn't shoot a single free throw until 2:33 remained, but no one would accuse the officials of bias. Not only does Michigan prefer a backscreen for a 3-pointer to an aggressive drive into the lane, but Ohio State's quickness and length close glimpses of daylight and the rim as soon as they open. Even on a day the Buckeyes had to work for baskets and earn the eventual breathing room they got, they came away with a convincing win and plenty of reason to feel good going forward. For the second time in two weeks, Smith provided welcome but unexpected -- outside the locker room, anyway -- contributions and showed the Buckeyes are more than just Sullinger, Craft, Buford and Deshaun Thomas. "Quite honestly, with this team we sort of need a jack of all trades guy and Lenzelle has been that at times," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "If a team chooses to guard us a certain way or scheme a certain defense, he can make them pay. Lenzelle is a winner. The energy-type plays he made today were something that definitely gave us a spurt and a burst of energy." The Wolverines rely on sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and freshman Trey Burke -- Sullinger's high school teammate playing in his first homecoming game Sunday -- to create offense, but Craft's aggressive defense made Burke work for every one of his 13 points and 5 assists and Hardaway went just 2-of-7 from beyond the arc. "Their defense this year, and I dont know if it's my imagination, but it seems really suffocating at times," Beilein said. It is, and it's why Ohio State gradually took charge of this game. It's why Ohio State has generally been blowing teams out, and why the challenge Michigan provided Sunday was welcomed. "We grinded it out," Smith said. "We made the best of the situation." Said Matta: "This probably good for us. As we knew going in, that was a hard fought battle. Hopefully we're a better team because of it." Road challenges lie ahead for Ohio State (19-3), starting Saturday at Wisconsin and including what will be a dangerous trip to Michigan in three weeks. Two games with Michigan State are still coming, and Ohio State knows it's going to get everybody's best shot every night. But the Buckeyes' best is getting to be as good as anybody in the country's best. When Ohio State plays defense like it did Sunday, it can start thinking about playing deep into March.
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