After braving tough road schedule, Michigan sets sights on protecting home court

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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 13, 2014

With its first win in Columbus in 11 years on Tuesday, the Michigan men’s basketball team guaranteed itself a winning record on the road for the Big Ten season. The last time that happened was 1994.

In fact, if the Wolverines (10-2 Big Ten, 18-6 overall) are able to knock off conference bottom feeders Purdue and Illinois over the next few weeks, it will be the team’s best Big Ten record on the road since 1985. The following season, 1986, was the last time Michigan seized an outright conference championship, and this year’s team has put itself in a position to be the next.

“This is unusual in this league right now to have the road wins that have been coming around,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “It gives these kids a great deal of confidence.”

After learning from early-season road losses to Iowa State and Duke, Michigan has negotiated the remaining portion of its road schedule with startling aplomb. And after beating Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State, it has emerged from the jungle in first place. The Wolverines are tied with Michigan State for the top spot, 2.5 games ahead of Iowa, and the biggest games left on the schedule are at Crisler Center.

“It is great to be at the top of this conference,” Beilein said, “but we still got six games to go with some really tough games coming up.”

Michigan will turn its attention toward protecting their home court the next two weeks, hosting No. 21 Wisconsin on Sunday and the ninth-ranked Spartans the following week. The two games will go a long way in determining the conference champion.

The setup has to appeal to Beilein, who has been very tough to beat at Crisler in recent years. Michigan’s lone blemish in Ann Arbor this year was a final-possession loss to then-No. 1 and unbeaten Arizona. The previous two seasons, the first home loss of the season didn’t come until the home finale. Even the year before, when Michigan lost 10 Big Ten games, the five home losses all came to teams ranked in the top 15.

Since returning home from Columbus early Wednesday morning, Michigan will stay put for two weeks — a far cry from the previous two weeks when the Wolverines played games in five different cities.

In addition to playing at home, Michigan will also benefit from extended rest. The four days before the Badgers (7-5, 20-5) come to town are the most time off the Wolverines have had since January, and the week-long break before the Michigan State game will give Beilein’s squad its most rest since December.

When the Wolverines last played Wisconsin, their win in the Kohl Center was their first there this millennium, and the Badgers were ranked No. 3 at the time, perched atop the Big Ten.

Since then, the teams have followed opposite trajectories. Michigan has won five of its last seven to stay at the top of the conference, while Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s team has sunk back into the middle of the pack.

However, after losing five of six games during a stretch in January, the Badgers have found their rhythm again. They knocked off Michigan State last week before bringing down Minnesota Thursday night.

A win on Sunday would mark Michigan’s first sweep of Wisconsin since 1999, and it would set up a game the following week that could very well decide the Big Ten regular- season champion.

For a coach who is surprised by very little, that fact is enough to bring wonder to Beilein.

“It’s great to be in this,” Beilein said. “I don’t know if we expected this this year just because we’re watching these two kids (Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.) play in the NBA right now, and they’re doing really well. And I’m saying, Jeez, we better have made it to the Final Four last year — those were really two good players.

“When you have that drop off, we didn’t know where it was going to come from, and especially our defense. Where it hasn’t been where it needs to be, it’s getting better. And then we’ve got some kids that have been able to step up.”