Entering Big Ten play, you would have been hard pressed to find even the most hardcore Michigan basketball fan who believed this year’s edition of the squad had a realistic shot at the title. Three teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Wisconsin) were sitting pretty in the top-10 and Michigan had limped its way into the season with an embarrassing loss to Charlotte and a beat down at the hands of Duke. It turns out that the Wolverines’ last loss before conference play was the one that would turn their season around.
That game, in which they led almost the entire way, was choked away at the end and even the most optimistic fans saw the writing on the wall that this young team would have trouble closing out close games throughout the year. With Big Ten play fast approaching, that was not exactly reassuring considering the nature of big ten games being so close.
It did not happen immediately after Arizona; with the exception of Holy Cross, Michigan won its next two games by a combined 6 points. They beat a Nebraska team that they beat by 29 last night by just one point in a game that required a defensive stop in the final seconds. It wasn’t pretty, but it showed that this team had learned to win those close games it looked so doomed to lose just a few weeks before.
Shortly after, the offense matured and exploded with the development of young talent and team chemistry. Since that Nebraska game, they have averaged 74 points per game to their opponents’ 63.9.
The hiccup that occurred at Indiana may have been another wake up call for a team that potentially got complacent. Three consecutive wins against top-10 teams and jumping 11 spots in the polls will surely boost a team’s confidence, and rolling into an early afternoon game against a Hoosiers team that had lost 3 of its last 4 games was definitely a trap that this young Wolverines team fell into. But unlike some of the other Big Ten teams that started off so hot, they did not crumble after this loss. They came back to Crisler, regrouped, and beat a team it should have by a margin that signified they had gotten the message at Indiana, “There are no off days in the Big Ten.”
As it currently stands, Michigan leads the Big Ten at 9-1 while Michigan State sits at 8-1 hosting Penn State tonight. The way the conference is currently shaping up, it appears that the February 23rd matchup at the Crisler Center between the Wolverines and Spartans will be for the Big Ten regular season title barring any collapses or late season surges as both teams currently sit at least 2.5 games ahead of 3rd place Iowa.
Michigan State will most likely be healthier for that game than the first matchup between the two, but as we have seen so many times in college basketball is that home court advantage makes a measurable difference and is what makes the sport so great. If Michigan can navigate its next three games without any slip-ups and gets by the Spartans on the 23rd, it looks like the unlikeliest of champions will be crowned.