Buckeyes take aim at No. 2

Buckeyes forward DeShaun Thomas can't stand seeing a 0 in Michigan's loss column. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's difficult to channel every bit of hatred into one opponent when a league is as loaded as the Big Ten and top-25 showdowns are waiting seemingly every week.

With so many matchups requiring a team's best stuff to survive, focusing on just one rival might not be the best use of energy.

And while those are certainly good reasons for Deshaun Thomas and Ohio State to treat Michigan (16-0) like any other opponent, that doesn't mean the junior forward will actually be able to do it. He has been hearing about the tradition of the series from alums since he stepped foot on campus. A sellout crowd is expected on Sunday when the No. 2 Wolverines visit Value City Arena, and there's also the small matter of an undefeated record up north that the No. 14 Buckeyes are tired of hearing about.

So while Thomas is certainly aware that every game ultimately counts the same in the rugged Big Ten, he also knows from experience it doesn't necessarily feel that way against Michigan.

"It's been a rival ever since Jimmy Jackson and all of them had been here," Thomas said. "The tradition, Jimmy Jackson still talks about Michigan when he's around us. For the players, the importance is very high and I think it's big like football. Everybody's always talking trash about Michigan around campus, this and that on the court and everything.

"It's very intense. To be honest with you, when you have a rival, it feels like it's the national championship or at least feels like the Big Ten championship. Playing against Michigan, every time it's on the schedule feels like a championship."

Nobody will be winning one at this early point in the conference season, particularly with so many contenders logjammed at the top and crammed into the national rankings. But both teams could use a victory for more than the bragging rights that would come with it.

Ohio State has already dropped one game in the league thanks to an ugly performance last week at Illinois, and it also has come up short in its two other high-profile matchups so far this season after sloppy shooting performances overshadowed stingy defense in losses to Duke and Kansas. Potentially falling two games back in the loss column even at this early stage could prove to be a lot to overcome if the Buckeyes want to extend their streak of regular-season conference titles to four.

The Wolverines, meanwhile, have cruised through their first three Big Ten games, making it look just as easy as they have all season to extend their perfect start to 16 games and firmly establish themselves as a threat to make a deep postseason run. But Michigan hasn't had to do much work in true road games yet, and in a league where wins away from home are a prized commodity, knocking off the Buckeyes would only solidify its spot among the elite.

And if it comes at the expense of a rival, well, that's just a bonus.

"It's just another team," Michigan guard Trey Burke said. "I know Ohio State has a great team and they are well coached and are capable of beating anybody in the country so I don't think it's different. It is just another great Big Ten team we have to beat.

"[But] Ohio State-Michigan, just the rivalry and the two names when they play against each other, it's always going to be an intense game and guys are always going to bring their everything."

This time, the Wolverines are also bringing their perfect record with them.

And if the history between the programs or all the reminders from former stars like Jackson about the importance of the rivalry weren't enough motivation for Thomas, that zero in the loss column has apparently ensured that playing Michigan won't feel like just any other game.

"I've been here, I know how important this rivalry is, so being here for three years, it hypes me up," Thomas said. "They're undefeated and we want to knock them out.

"In my eyes, if you knock down an undefeated team that was playing that way for so many weeks, it feels great -- but especially if it's a rival."