COLUMBUS, Ohio – The difference between perfect record and first loss may have been a fickle fraction of an inch, as Michigan guard Trey Burke's step-back 3-pointer just jiggled out with 17 seconds left Sunday.
"I'm not going to lie," said Ohio State's Aaron Craft, who was guarding Burke on the play. "I thought it was going in when I turned around."
It didn't, and the Buckeyes won, 56-53. In the process they denied their hated rivals a chance to be No. 1 in the rankings Monday, and also ended the annual Unbeaten Watch in college basketball.
Arizona (14-0) was taken down last Thursday at Oregon. Duke (15-0) lost Saturday at North Carolina State. That left the Wolverines (16-0) as the last unbeaten standing, and they didn't stand long Sunday. Michigan fell behind 4-3 and never led again, despite mounting a valiant comeback after a first-half meltdown.
It was an even earlier ending to The Watch than usual. Michigan had the fewest consecutive victories to start the season for the last unbeaten since Wake Forest went 16-0 in 2008-09. The Jan. 13 loss date is the earliest since Clemson was beaten on the same date in 2007.
And with that, Quinn Buckner, Scott May and Kent Benson can once again rest easy, knowing their place in history is more secure than Nick Saban's job status. Nobody is going to equal or surpass the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers' 32-0 record, the last run-the-table season in college basketball.
Not this year.
And probably not ever.
The parity is too great. The pressure is too intense. The bull's-eye is too big. The teams trying to accomplish the Herculean feat are too flawed.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta has seen this thing from both sides. He knocked off the last unbeaten Sunday, and also had that honor in 2005 against an Illinois team that made it to 29-0. In between, his Buckeyes had their own run: they were 24-0 in 2011 before losing on Feb. 12 at Wisconsin.
"I lived it a couple years ago, getting to 24-0," Matta said. "It's mind-boggling when you think about it. When you're the only team undefeated and the game starts and you're like, 'Man, I've never seen that (opposing) team play like this.' And the arenas you go into – I thought our fans were as good as I've ever seen them. It is challenging."
That level of challenge is why Michigan coach John Beilein was unbothered by his team's first loss, knowing that it was inevitable.
"When was the last team that didn't lose?" he asked. "It doesn't happen."
Since that immortal Indiana run, there have been some great teams that failed to go undefeated: Kentucky 2012, Kentucky '96, Duke '92, UNLV '91 and North Carolina '82 to name a few. Of that group, only the Runnin' Rebels made it into the NCAA tournament unbeaten, eventually meeting their demise in the Final Four against Duke.
That UNLV team is Exhibit A why a regular-season loss is not only inevitable, but healthy. The attention, adulation and opposition motivation escalate with every victory, which makes finishing the job virtually impossible.
Especially when you factor in the makeup of the most talented modern teams. They tend to be very young, and even the best young teams tend to freak out at least a little bit in their first serious road environment.
That was the case last year for freshman-laden Kentucky, which gave in to the feral atmosphere at Indiana in December. And that was the case Sunday for Michigan, which played four freshmen extensive minutes and panicked for most of the first half. Ohio State pounced on multiple Wolverines turnovers, running its lead up to 21 points before linchpin Craft had to sit with two fouls. That stalled the Buckeye momentum, and Michigan battled back to make a very good game of it in the second half.
"Most teams now are seeing their first top-level teams on the road," Beilein said. "Watch the scores and you'll see what happens."
Michigan was that team Sunday. Its first true road game was Jan. 3 at Northwestern (which doesn't count). Its second was here, with fairly predictable results.
My question: why wait until now to play your first top-level team on the road? Too many coaches today schedule like this is football, and a single loss is fatal.
Schools have become addicted to home-heavy non-conference schedules that don't season their teams sufficiently for the rigors of January and February. Mixed in among the mid-majors and low-majors at home, you may get a couple of neutral-court games against quality opponents, but rarely a true road game anymore.
That type of scheduling does two things: it robs season-ticket holders of incentive to show up in large and loud numbers in November and December; and it sets up a team for at least one flaming bust on the road when conference play starts. What's the risk in a quality non-conference road loss?
But the Wolverines weren't the first team to be fed into a wood chipper on the road in the Big Ten, and they won't be the last. This is the best league in the country, with the fiercest homecourt advantages. If you don't come ready to play against a good opponent, you'll be embarrassed.
On Saturday, Indiana blasted out to a 23-point halftime lead on Minnesota in Bloomington, and Wisconsin led Illinois by 26 in the first half in Madison. Earlier this month, the Gophers got up a dozen in the first half at home against Michigan State, and the Illini blew out to a 15-point first-half lead over visiting Ohio State.
The hard part is coming back. Michigan, Minnesota and Michigan State all rallied to make competitive games out of those steep first-half deficits on the road.
"That could've been a 30-point game," Beilein said.
Instead it was a three-point game. But it also was an Ohio State victory.
And now there are no more unbeatens. The distance between everyone else and Indiana's 1976 team gets one year longer, and the feat gets one year stronger.
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