Big Ten tournament deep with contenders

March 13, 2013

Michigan and Michigan State have never played each other in the Big Ten tournament, and that's not likely to change.

The Wolverines' last-minute collapse Sunday against Indiana means that they can only face the Spartans if both teams make it to Sunday's championship game. That won't be easy, especially for Michigan.

By losing to the Hoosiers, Michigan dropped all the way to the fifth seed. With only the top four getting byes, the Wolverines have gone from being the nation's top-seeded team to having to play on Thursday afternoon in Chicago.

They do get one break — they get to play the conference's last-place team in the first round — but even that's a mixed blessing for the Wolverines. They will be playing Penn State, which beat Michigan for one of its two conference victories this season. The Nittany Lions also hung around for most of their game at the Crisler Center before losing 79-71.

After blowing a 15-point lead in the second half while losing in Happy Valley, there shouldn't be any problem with Michigan taking Penn State lightly. A win on Thursday means an early-afternoon meeting on Friday with fourth-seeded Wisconsin. The Wolverines and Badgers only played once this season, with Ben Brust's half-court shot at the end of regulation setting up a stunning overtime win for Wisconsin.

At that point, Wisconsin looked like it might make a run at the regular-season title, but losses at Minnesota and Michigan State, plus a bad home defeat by Purdue left the Badgers in fifth place going into the season's final day. If Jordan Morgan's tip-in had dropped against Indiana, it would have been the Badgers playing Penn State on Thursday, not the Wolverines.

If Michigan wins its first two games of the Big Ten tournament, it will face the Hoosiers
on Saturday afternoon — barring a major upset by Illinois or Minnesota vs. Indiana on Friday. IU-Michigan would be a game with major implications beyond just a berth in Sunday's championship — the winner would be a strong contender for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Plus, Trey Burke's matchup with Victor Oladipo would give each player a huge chance to advance their case for National Player of the Year.

The Wolverines are capable of beating the Hoosiers — Michigan knows it let a win escape in the regular-season finale — but there's a large question mark about this team's mental strength. Michigan played well in neutral-site games in December, but struggled badly away from home in Big Ten play. It would need to overcome that issue to have any chance of knocking off Indiana and advancing to the championship game.

If the Wolverines do manage to make the final, they would likely face a team with a grudge — Michigan cost both Ohio State and Michigan State a share of the conference title by losing to Indiana. The Spartans will be the last team to get on the court in Chicago, as they open up against either Iowa or Northwestern in Friday's late game.

A win there — Michigan State would be highly favored against either team — would set up a Saturday evening game with Ohio State, assuming the Buckeyes aren't shocked by the winner of Purdue vs. Nebraska. Like most top Big Ten teams, the Spartans and Buckeyes split their season series, with both winning at home.

That semifinal might not have as much at stake as Michigan vs. Indiana, but it would still match up five of the conference's best players, with Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne going up against Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft.

The Buckeyes were the hottest team in the conference down the stretch, winning their last five games, and the most likely Big Ten championship game would pit them against the Hoosiers.

Still, if the Wolverines and Spartans get hot this weekend, there's a chance they could be playing in front of a national audience on Sunday afternoon — a fitting rubber match in a season where both schools have fielded top-10 teams for the first time.