The road to the Big Ten championship goes through Ann Arbor.
The only problem? Michigan’s going to need some help in order to be part of the battle.
After Indiana beat Michigan State on Tuesday, the top-ranked Hoosiers now have a one-game lead over the Spartans atop the conference. Michigan and Wisconsin, both with four losses, are another game back.
So why does Michigan play such a key role? The Hoosiers and Spartans both come to the Crisler Center in the season’s last weeks. If the Wolverines could win both games — and they are unbeaten at home — they would be even with Michigan State in the loss column, but still would need someone else to beat Indiana to get a chance at a second straight share of the title.
It isn’t out of the question, as both Michigan State and Indiana will be tested in their final four games, although the Hoosiers will feel better about them than they might have a month ago.
They start at Minnesota, which has lost eight of 11 games. Then, after what should be an easy win at home against Iowa, they host an Ohio State team that they just beat comfortably in Columbus. If Indiana continues to play the way it did against Michigan State on Tuesday, it’s quite likely that the Hoosiers will come to Ann Arbor with a 15-2 conference record, having already clinched at least a share of the title.
For Michigan State, it is in the unfamiliar position of having to cheer for Michigan; its best chance of picking up a banner requires the Wolverines to beat Indiana in the final game of the regular season. However, for that to help, the Spartans have to finish 4-0, and that won’t be easy. They go to Ohio State this weekend, then face Michigan in a must-win for both teams on March 2.
After that, the Spartans will host Wisconsin, another team desperate to stay in the race, before getting a breather when Northwestern comes to town for the season finale.
The Wolverines have the favorable schedule, getting Indiana, Michigan State and Illinois at home and easy trips to Penn State and Purdue, and might have been a favorite for at least a share of the title if not for Ben Brust’s halfcourt miracle that led to their overtime loss in Wisconsin.
Michigan needs to go 5-0 and hope that Minnesota or Ohio State can knock off Indiana. That’s right — while Michigan State will be cheering for Michigan, the Wolverines will be rooting for the Buckeyes. Black is white and night is day at the end of this crazy Big Ten season.
Of course, the league title is just one of the things that will be decided between now and March 10. Even if the Hoosiers appear to be favored to win the championship, the Wolverines, Spartans and Badgers still will be fighting for the second, third and fourth seeds in the Big Ten tournament, and all four schools will be working to better their eventual seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
There’s also one more battle that probably will come down to the final day of the season: the game between Michigan and Indiana. This one isn’t over a team accomplishment, but rather for the Big Ten Player of the Year award, and quite possibly the national Player of the Year as well.
Michigan point guard Trey Burke has been the favorite all season, and still has the stats on his side. Burke averages 18.6 points, 6.9 assists and 3.2 rebounds, and that doesn’t count the intangible value of being the main focus of every team’s defense and having to overcome that by getting his young teammates involved in the offense.
A challenger has emerged, though, in Indiana junior Victor Oladipo. In Indiana’s six games against ranked opponents this season — all wins — Oladipo is averaging 20 points, six rebounds and three steals. In Tuesday’s win at the Breslin Center, playing on a sprained ankle, he put up 19 points, nine rebounds and five steals. Six of those points came in the final 60 seconds, as the Hoosiers rallied to beat the Spartans and take control of the conference title race.
Oladipo can’t match Burke when it comes to scoring — he averages only 13.8 points — and he doesn’t handle the ball nearly as much. However, he is averaging six rebounds a game and hitting an astonishing 64 percent as a shooting guard. He’s also one of the nation’s best defenders, rivaling Ohio State’s Aaron Craft as the best in the league, and is obviously at his best in big games.
The vote might come down to Burke and Oladipo’s performances at the Crisler Center on the last day of the regular season, and if one outplays the other, it could have major implications on the conference championship and seeding for both tournaments.
Right now, Indiana and Burke are the favorites. We’ll see if anyone can change that in the next 18 days.