ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For Ohio State, the word of the day was "survive." It was entering hostile territory in Ann Arbor for its biggest sports rivalry, on its opponent's Senior Day, and an emotional one at that. Add to that the overwhelming pressure of needing to win to keep pace with the surging Michigan State Spartans, and there was no shortage of drama that Ohio State's showdown against Michigan could produce.
Ohio State didn't live up to the billing, losing 74-62 and falling short in a game that felt like Michigan had completely under control throughout it. Every time Ohio State would start to build up a modicum of momentum, another Wolverine would hit a shot. And it was hardly familiar faces knocking them down for Michigan. Jordan Poole and Jaaron Simmons were among Michigan's leading scorers, with Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman putting up points of his own. Michigan didn't take a double-digit lead until there were less than four minutes left, but it may as well have been up by 15 throughout with how the tempo of the game felt.
Poole, who's averaged 6.2 points per game this season, went 4 of 5 from deep, far better than his 35.5 percent average from beyond the arc this season. Even more important than the triples: The timing of them. He finished with 15 points, four points shy of his season high, and Michigan's players had Crisler absolutely rocking throughout the second half. The game ended with the ball in Poole's hands, which just seemed like the inevitable conclusion.
For Ohio State, this game raises a lot of questions -- and confirms a lot of concerns. When it needed plays from the likes of C.J. Jackson, it simply didn't get them. Keita Bates-Diop tried to run the offense, and Jae'Sean Tate tried to inject offense of his own, but it simply wasn't enough. Ohio State's defense would collapse at the other end, and Michigan would only extend its lead. Bates-Diop struggled from the field for his second consecutive game, going 5 of 17 from the field (although he went 3 of 6 from deep), which head coach Chris Holtmann was ready to brush off.
"[Bates-Diop] has ... been a focal point for us of the scouting report since really midway through the season and Big Ten season," Holtmann said. "Teams are being really physical, they're eating up his space, and crawling into him and ... putting their hands on him on drives and body him up on drives. And if that's the way the game is going to be allowed to be played -- which clearly it is -- then he's got to do a better job adjusting to that and playing through that physicality."
Holtmann expounded on that physical play: "They're a good defensive team ... they forced our guards to make plays. Crawled up into us, really pressured us, extended us ... and we handled it well at times but not as well other times. And we've got to make better plays with the ball -- we try as coaches to put them in better position but our guards have to make better decisions and make better plays with the ball."
Ohio State outrebounded Michigan 40-30, but a turnover differential of 14-7 was just too much to overcome. Easy missed shots that could have closed the gap hurt Ohio State even more, and it felt like its only go-to when it needed points was to let Tate do whatever he wanted. This led to a six-minute stretch in which Ohio State didn't convert a field goal in the second half.
"I think we probably missed a couple shots in there," Holtmann said. "I remember the stretch but I don't remember the specifics of the stretch. I'd have to look at it and try to figure out what exactly -- was that poor execution or was that -- I do think we had an offensive rebound kick-out maybe to Keita for an open three so, I think there were some missed shots there. But, again, I think we've got to try to continue to play through physicality and the guy that really does the best job of that is [Tate] right now. And we've got to have more guys play through that and make smart, sound plays. And we've got to move the ball a little bit better too."
The game was played physically, and free throws were a huge part of it. Michigan went 17 of 24 from the line, while Ohio State sputtered to 9-19. Holtmann seemed unable to explain the struggles at the line.
"We've obviously been a good free-throw shooting team," he said. "I think it was one of these games where we just didn't make ones that we normally make -- that's a good question. That's always a hard one for coaches to understand sometimes why you shoot them well and why you struggle. We obviously struggled from the line here."
Ohio State needed to win this game to keep its first seed in the Big Ten tournament at the end of the month. After Michigan State's historic comeback against Northwestern on Saturday night, this game felt like a must-win, despite it still not sitting poorly standings-wise. It could have stayed top 16 in bracket seeding with a win as well, but it will likely need a stumble from Michigan State and a dominant Big Ten tournament to have any part in that conversation -- and even that's unlikely.
Ohio State falls to 13-3 in conference play, and in spite of an incredibly impressive resume, losses to Penn State and Michigan stand out. Add to that that OSU lost to Clemson and Gonzaga in out of conference play without beating anyone of note, and it makes Ohio State a bit of a wild card as far as seeding goes due to its solid wins against both Michigan State and Purdue.
As for Ohio State's mindset? It's not time to panic. "The reality is that if you go through a power conference unscathed, then you've got one heck of a team," Holtmann said. "And by unscathed I mean ... a loss or two. Having said that, we have to correct some things and hopefully improve in some areas ... We certainly have to make some strides moving forward with a very quick turnaround."
Holtmann's comments boil down to a simple fact: Ohio State didn't play physicially enough. Bates-Diop struggled under duress, while only Tate seemed to be able to handle the perimeter pressure. Bates-Diop's struggles were apparent, but Kaleb Wesson also struggled inside, and C.J. Jackson never had any rhythm.
The bottom line: Michigan State has been resolidified as the current class of the conference. With its win against Purdue last week, it felt difficult to bet on OSU in a rematch between the two teams. Now it feels impossible. Miles Bridges has Michigan State looking like a legitimate Final Four contender. Ohio State's game against Michigan only confirmed that this season was Ohio State exceeding expectations -- but it still has a long way to go before it's going to make waves in postseason play.
Ohio State hasn't won the conference since 2012, when it shared with Michigan State and Michigan. It won outright in 2011. And it might win the conference yet again. A two-seed is nothing to scoff at, and barring an epic stumble against Rutgers or Indiana it looks like that's where OSU will fall. But Ohio State will face good teams in the Big Ten tournament. And the Ohio State that played Michigan on Sunday will struggle with mid-seeded teams in tournament play. Yes, OSU exceeded expectations coming into the season. But expectations change over time -- and Ohio State played nowhere near expectations on Sunday.