The Game, as it is presumptuously referred to by folks situated south of Lake Erie, had its usual life-and-death ramifications this year. Ohio State's task was to stomp on its most hated rival on its way to the Big Ten championship game — which, for the Buckeyes, is another steppingstone on the way toward the championship game. John Harbaugh's task was to not to get fired.
As the pregame juice rose to a boil Friday night, another player in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry was tiptoeing in from backstage. Did you notice?
The Buckeyes and Wolverines basketball programs are on the rapid rise. Ohio State is ranked No. 10 in the country. Michigan, after a bounteous Thanksgiving in the Bahamas, may go from unranked to the top five when the latest rankings are released Monday. It sounds crazy, but it's entirely possible.
The Big Ten has some heavy hitters. Michigan State, the preseason No. 1, has lost to Kentucky (first game of the season, not a shocker) and Virginia Tech (in Hawaii last week, a surprise). The Spartans are ranked No. 3, and Maryland, a chic early season pick for the national title, is undefeated and ranked No. 5.
Ohio State (7-0) was No. 18 at the start of the season. The Buckeyes showed some mettle with a rugged victory over Cincinnati in early November. They went supernova with an impressive 76-51 victory over then-No. 10 Villanova at midmonth.
Coach Chris Holtmann, in his third season, has established a foundational defense; no opponent has scored more than 57 points against the Buckeyes. More impressive, his team seems to be coalescing around a potent and varied offense. They have weapons, they have depth and everyone shares the ball. They are a pleasure to watch, especially for those who might recall how the ball sometimes got stuck in Thad Matta's sets.
I talk to a lot of old ballplayers, and not only about prescription regimens and topical balms. They like this Ohio State team. They like its basketball IQ and its joie de vivre.
They are interested to see where it can go now that point guard CJ Walker is acclimated and wing Andre Wesson is healthy. They argue about whether point guard D.J. Carton is as good as Mike Conley (Whoa). They have a healthy appreciation for Kaleb Wesson's multifaceted game; there is something old school about a big man who doesn't need to score to be a force.
As the Buckeyes have been an emerging darling, the Wolverines have burst into the national consciousness. It happened last week at the Battle 4 Atlantis, which was named in honor of hashtags. In a span of three days, Michigan (7-0) cruised past Iowa State, easily handled No. 6 North Carolina and ran No. 8 Gonzaga off the floor. It was biblical.
In the background of all the harsh Harbaugh talk up north, Fab Fiver Juwan Howard has come home to jolt the basketball program. Howard replaced John Beilein, who took the Cleveland Cavaliers' job.
Howard had never before been a head coach — and now he has forward Isaiah Livers, center Jon Teske, point guard Zavier Simpson and company believing they are the kings of the world. Or, at least, Atlantis.
Michigan looks an awful lot like Ohio State. The players have bought into the coach's vision and put in the hours. They play beautiful basketball.
This week is not The Week, but it brings a notable stretch for both teams. As the ACC/Big Ten challenge gets underway, Michigan plays at No. 2 Louisville on Tuesday night — and Ohio State plays its first road game of the season, at North Carolina on Wednesday night.
A Big Ten season, one that will be marked by the highest aspirations, is looming.
What will the national rankings look like next week? What will they look like when the conference tournament arrives in the second week of March? And what will come after that?