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Neal Rothschild: Four games left, but...

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 23, 2014

It was a matchup between the two best teams in the Big Ten, the ones perched atop the standings. Michigan and Michigan State were ahead of the rest of the pack, and this was the teams’ last scheduled matchup of the year.

If I didn’t know better, I might say that this game would determine the Big Ten champion. The Wolverines wouldn’t have any tough games after this one, and the Spartans would continue to get their injured players back and in rhythm. Luckily for Michigan, it got the grand prize — a season sweep and a Big Ten title.

But not quite in the eyes of the team.

“We know we’ve got four big games left, so it’s definitely going to be tough,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas.

Even against Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana?

“To be honest, we try to treat every game that way, every game like a Big Ten Championship,” said fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan.

But wasn’t this game even more for a Big Ten Championship?

“We have four games to play,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “What it does do right now is put us in position to be in position. That’s all it does.”

Fine.

***

There are four games left, but this was a signature win for a program that hasn’t stopped stockpiling signature wins over the last four years. It was a game against Michigan’s toughest rival in the most important game of the season.

Yes, there are four games left, but because of this one, Michigan only needs to win three of the last four to win a share of the title, and if Michigan State loses again, for an outright title.

All of the circled games on Michigan’s schedule have come and gone. The tough part is over. The remaining games on the calendar are against teams in the bottom half of the Big Ten with the road contests coming against the conference’s No. 9 and No. 11 squads. On Sunday, the Wolverines landed the big fish.

At least one of the Wolverines’ players felt that way.

“We didn’t talk a lot about the Big Ten Championship at the beginning of the (game),” said sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III before conceding that he brought it up late in the contest. “But I said, ‘We’re playing for a championship. We’ve got to win this game.’ ”

Four games left, but this was the one where Nik Stauskas rediscovered how elite he can be. It’s hard enough to become a top player, and it’s even harder to maintain that form once you’ve become a marked man.

For the last three weeks, Stauskas has been hounded by opposing teams. Whatever defensive weapons Indiana, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin had, they stuck on the Mississauga, Ont. native.

But on Sunday, a switch turned in Stauskas’ head. What the other team did need not matter. He took it upon himself to have the best game of his season, scoring 25 points on 69-percent shooting with five assists.

“Maybe (it was) a little bit of the stage and me getting fed up with it,” he said. “I’m a basketball player. I like taking pride in being one of the best players on the floor every time I step out there. When teams shut me out, it’s frustrating, and I didn’t want to let that happen anymore.”

Four games left, but this one meant dominance over Michigan State. Having won six of its last eight against the Spartans, Michigan has asserted itself as the top basketball presence in the state, at least for the time being.

Six of eight isn’t just a few good years — it’s sustained success. It’s Keith Appling and Adreian Payne having come and gone without ever winning in Ann Arbor. With four wins in the next two weeks, it means two Michigan Big Ten titles to Michigan State’s one for its senior class.

Over a four-year period when Michigan sports have been pockmarked by mediocrity on the football field, where the Spartans have laid Michigan to waste, the basketball team swung back. Michigan State may have stolen the gridiron, but Michigan has taken the hardwood.

“It says that we’re back,” Beilein said. “Michigan’s back in so many ways. … If you compete with Michigan State, then you’re competing with all the other top schools. We hadn’t been there for a while. It’s just good to be in that position. … Consistency is the things that Wisconsin and Michigan State and Ohio State have been able to do.

“Their kids don’t know what it’s like to (not) go to the NCAA Tournament. That’s the mentality that we want.”

Of course, Michigan has to perform in the four games left, but the title was earned on Sunday. The Wolverines’ performance was the material that Big Ten championships are made of.

Over the span of seven minutes in the second half, Michigan flipped a 48-43 deficit into a 64-52 lead. It was a run Michigan State couldn’t withstand and one that has Michigan sitting pretty for its first outright Big Ten championship since 1985-86.

Four games left, but this was the big one.

Rothschild can be reached at nealroth@umich.edu or on Twitter @nrothschild3.


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