Michigan’s road to title runs through OSU

John Beilein was coaching at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.

None of the current Wolverine players were even born yet.

Athletic director Dave Brandon was probably delivering pizzas.

It’s been that long since Michigan won a regular-season Big Ten basketball championship. Yep, 26 years.

You have to go back to the 1985-86 season, when Bill Frieder was the coach, Steve Fisher an assistant, Roy Tarpley the MVP and Glen Rice a freshman.

A total of seven Wolverines from that season would go on to become NBA draft picks, including Tarpley, Rice, Gary Grant, Antoine Joubert, Richard Rellford, Butch Wade and Robert Henderson.

The Wolverines went 28-5, 14-4 in the Big Ten to finish a game ahead of Indiana. It was the second of back-to-back titles for Michigan, which was ranked No. 5 nationally before getting upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Iowa State.

Who knew more than a quarter of a century later, the Wolverines would still be looking for their next regular-season conference title.

Or that Michigan State would win or share seven — maybe more — before Michigan won another?

Sure, the Wolverines took the inaugural conference tournament behind the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor in 1998.

But in the Big Ten, it’s still the regular-season winner that is considered the true champion in many people’s eyes, even though the tourney champ gets the automatic NCAA bid.

“Where a tourney championship is wonderful, winning a regular-season Big Ten championship is very unique,” said Beilein, in his fifth season as the Wolverines’ coach. “It hasn’t happened here in a long time. We’d love our guys to believe they can be special and do something like that.”

Saturday night’s primetime matchup against Ohio State will determine whether the Wolverines have a chance to finally break through and get at least a share of the Big Ten crown this season.

The Wolverines (19-7, 9-4) are in third place, a game behind co-leaders Ohio State and Michigan State.

But Michigan’s schedule eases up over the final two weeks, at least in comparison to OSU and MSU, which meet on the final day in East Lansing.

The Wolverines close out with road games against Northwestern (5-8), Illinois (5-8) and Penn State (4-10), plus one at home against Purdue (7-6).

Winning on the road won’t be easy, but all three are beatable right now.

So, if Michigan can knock off Jared Sullinger and the Buckeyes before a “Maize Out” at Crisler Center, where U-M is undefeated this season, the Wolverines will be in position to end this Big Ten championship drought.

Beilein’s team has had five days to prepare for the rematch against Ohio State, which rolled to a 64-49 victory in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 29 in Columbus, Ohio.

“They know the standings,” said Beilein, whose last title came in 2000-01 with Richmond in the Colonial Athletic Association, of his players’ approach.

“You just do the math. We have a great opportunity here against a great team. You have to embrace those opportunities.”

Said sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz: “We’re just taking it one day at a time, getting better in practice, but it’s all kind of in the back of our mind.”

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Beilein has picked up on football coach Brady Hoke’s philosophy and continues to refer to Ohio State only as “Ohio.”

“I don’t think there’s any message,” Beilein said. “We had no meeting. Brady called them Ohio, I said, ‘Let’s have some uniformity here.'”

… Michigan has six players averaging between 7.6 and 14.3 points. In the last four games, three different Wolverines have led the team in scoring. Four players have scored in double figures in the same game seven times this season.

That balance has been a key to the Wolverines’ success.

“We have not had to rely on one or two guys to do it every day, and if they didn’t have a good game, we had no chance,” Beilein said. “That would have made us more like a .500 team right now.”

… With one victory in its final five games, Michigan will clinch its first conference winning record since the 2002-03 season.

Over the last eight years, Michigan had a combined record of 58-78 in Big Ten regular-season play.