COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – It’s hard to imagine in a grudge match like the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry that a player wouldn’t take it personally being snubbed by his hometown team.
But the Wolverines’ brilliant point guard, Trey Burke, swears that he’s OK with being bypassed by the Buckeyes – even though he grew up in Columbus and he longed to play with his longtime best friend, former Buckeye Jared Sullinger.
“I understood that they already had Aaron Craft and they were looking at Shannon Scott,” Burke said of his two Ohio State counterparts. “In high school, it fueled me and made me work harder. Now I feel I’m in the best situation I could have been in. I feel like I’m in the right place. I’m happy here. I don’t see anything personal.”
Even though he’s coming home, he’s a former Associated Press Mr. Basketball in Ohio and he’ll have 25 or so friends and family cheering him on, it’s likely he’ll get a cold reception when No. 2 Michigan (16-0, 3-0 Big Ten) takes on 15th-ranked Ohio State (12-3, 2-1) on Sunday.
With No. 1 Duke losing at No. 20 North Carolina State 84-76 on Saturday, the Wolverines are the last unbeaten team left standing.
As a freshman last season, Burke was a bit overwhelmed by the crowd when he came back home. So were the Wolverines. Burke had 13 points and five assists in a 64-49 loss to the then-No. 4 Buckeyes.
In the rematch at Ann Arbor, Mich., he had 17 points and five assists in a 56-51 upset.
When the teams met in the Big Ten semifinals – less than 24 hours after Michigan had gone to overtime to beat Minnesota – and Burke had almost as many turnovers (eight) as he did points (five) and assists (four) combined in a 77-55 loss. He made just 1 of 11 shots from the field.
Now he’s guided the Wolverines to a fast start. A win against the Buckeyes and Michigan will set a school record for wins to start a season, currently shared with the 1985-86 team.
Burke says he’s grown accustomed to hostile environments after fronting the Michigan attack for a year and a half.
“I’m used to going (on the road) and getting booed by a crowd,” he said. “I know there’ll be a lot of people who want to see me do well; and I know there’s going to be a lot of people who want to see me do bad.”
There are very few rivalries as intense as the annual football grudge match between Michigan and Ohio State. Now that enmity has been carried over to the wintertime, said Craft.
“It’s Ohio State-Michigan. I don’t care what sport it is. It could be synchronized swimming,” Craft said. “You always want to win.”
Especially this time. The Buckeyes, who have won at least a share of the Big Ten title the last three seasons and five of the last seven years, can ill afford another debilitating conference loss after a one-sided beatdown at Illinois on Jan. 5.
“(The Big Ten season) is a long grind but you don’t want to get into that position of hoping things happen in your favor when you’re not playing,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta.
Matta has had his way with Michigan in his eight previous years at Ohio State, winning 16 of 19 meetings.
From the outside the game will likely revolve around how well the Wolverines can guard 6-foot-7 Deshaun Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 20.3 points a game, and whether Ohio State can muster a way to stop Michigan’s many scoring threats.
Burke leads the Wolverines at 18.2 points a game, with three other starters also hitting double figures. Tim Hardaway Jr. is at 16.3 and freshmen Nik Stauskas averages 13.5 and Glenn Robinson III contributes 12.6 points per outing.
Both teams have something to prove. Michigan’s biggest two road wins have been over Northwestern (94-66) and Bradley (74-66). Can the Wolverines show their mettle against a rough-and-tumble ranked opponent?
And they can ascend to No. 1 for the first time since Nov. 30, 1992. That Michigan team, featuring the vaunted “Fab Five,” went on to a 31-5 record and lost in the national championship game before NCAA violations resulted in vacating that season.
Ohio State is 12-0 against unranked teams and 0-3 when playing teams in the AP Top 25. Do the Buckeyes have what it takes to beat someone at least as good as they are?
The rivalry provides an undercurrent for the game. Fans have been camping out – granted, in unseasonable temperatures approaching 70 degrees – to get prime seats at Value City Arena. The players have gotten texts, tweets and emails from fans and fellow students urging them to beat their chief adversary.
Matta said his team always gets a team’s best shot, partly because of the Buckeyes’ run of titles.
“The thing I’ve learned, and I like it, you either love Ohio State or you hate Ohio State,” he said. “There’s no gray area like, `I like them.’ When you’ve had some success, it definitely heightens the awareness.”
Burke said he’s trying to distance himself from the emotion of the game.
“Last year I kind of made it a personal matchup at times. That was a sign of immaturity,” he said. “Now that I know what it takes to win, I’m going to try and do that and get the win.”
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