When Minnesota tipped off against Purdue on Tuesday night, John Beilein was 30,000 feet in the air.

Stuck on a flight at an inopportune time, Beilein had to work with what the airline gave him. There was no way to stream the game, but Delta allows free messaging. So he asked his wife, Kathleen, to send updates.

After all, this game’s implications loomed large. If the Boilermakers won, they would clinch at least a share of the Big Ten championship, needing just a win over Northwestern on Saturday to win outright and shut Michigan and Michigan State out.

If the Golden Gophers won, on the other hand, it would likely secure their spot in the NCAA Tournament — and open the door right back up for the Wolverines and Spartans.

Texting Kathleen wasn’t the easiest way of getting updates, but it would have to do.

“They’re up four,” she would text, and Beilein would have to remind her that it was meaningless without knowing how much time was left.

And then there were the media timeouts, the long pauses without an update that left Beilein in agony.

“There were some pauses where I’m not very good with the TV timeout,” Beilein said. “But we got through it and by the time we landed … I knew the score.”

That score, of course, was this: Minnesota 73, Purdue 69. Most of the season, it seemed like Saturday’s game in East Lansing would be for the Big Ten, but both Michigan and Michigan State stumbled down the stretch — the Wolverines by losing to the Spartans at home two weeks ago and Michigan State by dropping its next game at Indiana — giving the Boilermakers control of their own destiny.

But all of a sudden, there was this lifeline, a second chance. All of a sudden, Saturday at the Breslin Center will mean everything for both teams. Whichever one wins will earn at least a share of the conference.

“That was the end of our practice day,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “And everybody kinda hit the group chat saying, ‘Yo, Minnesota won,’ and then we knew that, alright, this, obviously gonna be a tough game. It’s gonna be a pretty hype game.”

This is the kind of stuff straight out of a movie or a little kid’s dreams. Last game of the regular season, on your biggest rival’s home floor — the same rival that stunned you in front of your own fans just weeks earlier. Primetime on national TV. And on top of all that, a championship at stake.

Players had Wednesday off from practice, a mandate on spring break. But the excitement only built.

When asked on Friday about his reaction to Tuesday’s result — and a sudden second chance — sophomore forward Isaiah Livers had just one word.


He paused for a split second.

“I wouldn’t want any other team right now to go play tomorrow. … It’s perfect, perfectly set.”

At the beginning and end of every practice, Beilein reminds his team of its values. Twice a day, every day, they conclude by saying, “One day, we’ll be champions.”

From the beginning of the season, it seemed like Saturday could be the day when Michigan could earn its first regular-season conference championship since 2014.

But although this — the Wolverines losing to Penn State in February and to the Spartans at Crisler Center, Michigan State being swept by Indiana, the two best teams in the conference needing an 11th-hour assist from the Boilermakers to keep their title hopes alive — isn’t what anyone expected, you couldn’t have scripted it any better.

“Here we are,” Beilein said. “It’s March 8, and tomorrow we’re playing to be champions.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *