Ten days ago, as fans streamed towards the Crisler Center exits early and Michigan’s players ambled towards the handshake line in a stupor, their chance at a Big Ten championship felt over. More than that, it felt like an anticlimax.
All year, Michigan and Michigan State barreled towards each other for two games in the regular season’s last three weeks. All year, it looked like the winner of the second game would take the Big Ten’s championship belt home from the Breslin Center. Then the Spartans walked into Crisler and blew that notion to bits.
The rest of it — the Big Ten Tournament and whatever comes next — remained well within the throes of possibility for the Wolverines. But this particular banner, one that felt almost likely after a 17-0 start, wouldn’t hang. After a loss to Michigan State that put the Spartans in the driver’s seat for the conference with Purdue riding shotgun, that much felt a near certainty.
“We’re in the championship hunt,” said Michigan coach John Beilein that day, recalling his message to the team. “Anything can happen down the stretch.”
It was hard to believe he meant it.
Michigan plays Michigan State on Saturday. A share of the conference title is on the line — an outright title should Purdue lose at Northwestern earlier in the day. The last time that happened was 1966, 53 years of hate ago.
First though, consider what it took for Michigan to get here.
To make it happen, the Spartans had to drop a game last Saturday in which they held a 95 percent win probability at Indiana with 3:53 to go, per KenPom’s calculations — an act that required the nation’s fourth-best offense in adjusted efficiency to score zero points from that point forward.
The Wolverines had to beat a ranked team on the road for the first time since November. They walked into a pressure-cooker at Xfinity Center, shot 36 percent through the first half and held a lead anyway. Then they kept it, winning 69-62.
Even then, once Beilein walked into the media room for his press conference, the implicit assumption held. This game meant little in terms of anything but seeding for the Big Ten Tournament and momentum.
“What’s the takeaway from this game?” one reporter asked Beilein. “Is it the double-bye? Is it, you’re still on Purdue’s heels?”
The question felt almost rhetorical. The implication was obvious.
“We’re in the hunt for the championship right now,” Beilein said. “We’re one game out of first place with one game for us to go. Everybody else has two games to go.”
At that point, after Michigan State’s loss, it was easier to think the next game would have no impact at all on the Big Ten title.
That’s because the Boilermakers, ranked fifth in adjusted efficiency, had to score all of 0.97 points per possession in Minnesota on Tuesday, then have a 50/50 call go the other team’s way. Then all of that happened, and the Gophers walked out of Williams Arena with a 73-69 win, a checkmark on a precarious NCAA Tournament resume and the Big Ten split wide open.
And so, here we are.
The game 10 days ago merely felt big. This game is monumental.
These teams played each other recently and kept an eye on each other all year. This is Zavier Simpson’s chance for redemption against Cassius Winston. John Beilein’s chance for redemption against Tom Izzo. Michigan’s chance to assert basketball dominance in the state. For Michigan State, it’s all that in reverse. It’s for a banner and, yes, might preview a third matchup in Chicago a week from Sunday with a second banner on the line.
As the Spartans talked to reporters on hand in East Lansing after their win over Nebraska on Tuesday, they ran back and forth into their lounge to catch the end of Minnesota-Purdue, according to The Detroit News. They know what it meant, and surely so do the Wolverines.
Standing in a back hallway of Xfinity Center on Sunday, Ignas Brazdeikis was asked about the win over Maryland, and what waited at the end of the week — despite the likelihood of the Boilermakers wrapping up the title by tip-off.
You wouldn’t have known it from his answer.
“I feel like it’s a great momentum booster for us,” Brazdeikis said, “and we’ll be ready to go.”
So will the rest of the state.