Originally posted on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 1/30/12

In a battle for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes faced some adversity against a worthy foe in rival Michigan. A well-executed gameplan kept Jared Sullinger from dominating the low post, but the Bucks kept their home winning streak alive thanks in large part to the 38-29 rebounding margin in their favor, led by Lenzelle Smith Jr.’s team-high 17 points and 12 rebounds, as OSU pulled away late for a 64-49 victory in The Schott.

Michigan came out strong in a hostile environment, and the first half was played entirely at their pace. Defensively, Michigan threw a couple variations of zone at the Buckeyes, all based upon keeping the ball out of Jared Sullinger’s hands. In that respect, for the first half and really most of the game, it was a resounding success. Sullinger was held to 5 points on just 2-of-5 shooting at the half. Jordan Morgan, Evan Smotrycz, and Zack Novak all played a role in keeping tight tabs on Sully. Morgan made a difference on the other end too, slipping on screen-and-roll situations for three first-half buckets to lead Michigan in scoring. Sullinger picked up one early foul, so he was hesitant to be physical on that end of the floor, which we’ve seen in the past. Sully did pick up that second foul off the ball with just under six minutes remaining, so he was relegated to the bench. With just a 24-21 lead at the half for Ohio State, Michigan had to feel pretty good about how things were going.

So, what kept the Buckeyes afloat in that first half with Sullinger held in check? It was the rebounding flurry by Lenzelle Smith Jr. who carried the extra weight. Smith hit the offensive glass hard for four rebounds and three putbacks as he posted 9 points and 7 total rebounds in that first half. The rest of the team was just 5-of-18 in the first half. As for Michigan, they chose to live and die by the three point shot on offense. UM hit just 3 of their 11 attempts in the first 20 minutes, and that strategy allowed the Bucks to hit the defensive glass and keep Michigan off the foul line. In fact, Michigan did not attempt a single free throw until the final three minutes of the game.

One aspect of the Wolverine offense that the Buckeyes struggled to contain was freshman point guard Trey Burke. Burke, who played with Sullinger and Weatherspoon at Columbus Northland High School, was 5-for-11 from the field for 13 points, adding 5 assists. His teammates did a nice job of getting Burke open at the top of the key with screens, though it wasn’t easy detaching Aaron Craft. It remains to be seen what Buckeye freshman Shannon Scott will develop into, but it certainly makes you wonder what would have happened if Ohio State had brought on Burke.

In the second half, foul trouble hit Michigan as Morgan picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the second half, and Smotrycz and Novak picked up seven second half fouls between them. Once Morgan picked up his fourth foul, the other two had to take turns defending Sullinger. In the second half, though, Jared was more aware of where the double team was coming from, and he was able to muscle his way to a couple of big buckets late. No sequence was bigger than his block of Novak and open floor thunderous dunk with 4:30 remaining. That made it a 11-point game, and the Buckeyes never looked back.

The Bucks went through a five-minute scoring drought from ten to five minutes left in the game. They broke that drought by going to Thomas and Sullinger in the post as the duo scored the next 10 points and extended the lead from 7 to 11. With quick ball reversal and two guys operating on the blocks, it made it much more difficult for the Wolverines to pinch Sully in the post.

This won’t be the last time that the Buckeyes see a zone they have to beat. The easiest way to do that is with three point shooting. But, as we all know by now, Ohio State is no longer a good three-point shooting team. That didn’t stop them from trying to beat the zone that way at some points throughout this one, but they managed just 3-of-15 from beyond the arc. In less conventional ways, the Buckeyes found a way to score enough and let their defense carry them. If they can’t get hot from deep, they’ll need to continue to get creative and have strong performances from role players like Smith.

Next up for the first place Buckeyes, the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison on Saturday afternoon. That will be another game where the opponent will try to drag down the pace, and the Buckeyes will have to find a way to answer.

(Photo: Jay LaPrete/AP)

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