This was supposed to be straightforward.
The Big Ten was supposed to run through the mitten this year. Michigan and Michigan State were the two highest-ranked teams in the conference before the season and the disparity between them and everyone else only seemed to grow as the season progressed — at the end of January, the Wolverines were 20-1, the Spartans 18-3.
It was all supposed to come to a head on Mar. 9 in East Lansing in the second meeting between the teams. It couldn’t have been scripted any better: on the last day of the regular season, two juggernauts with no love lost between them would walk into the Breslin Center, and one would emerge as Big Ten champion.
Turns out, nothing’s that simple. Not in a conference where 10 of 14 teams currently harbor reasonable NCAA Tournament hopes.
For starters, other legitimate challengers have emerged. Purdue, which Michigan blasted by 19 in December, rattled off eight straight wins, including a defeat of Michigan State, before falling to Maryland on Tuesday. The Boilermakers and Terrapins sit at third and fourth, both within a game of the Wolverines and Spartans. Wisconsin and Iowa, at 9-5 and 8-5 respectively, lurk just beyond, and both teams have also beaten Michigan.
Meanwhile, the cannibalism that has pervaded the Big Ten’s middle and lower tiers has finally caught up to the top. The Spartans’ recent three-game losing streak included a home defeat to 11th-place Indiana and a loss at Illinois, which has won four straight after a 2-8 conference start. Penn State, just 2-11 in conference play, chased the Wolverines out of State College with a 75-69 win on Tuesday.
All of a sudden, the Michigan-Michigan State prize fight is no longer a foregone conclusion.
“It’s great for our league to have a team who’s in the bottom of the league beat a team that’s going for the championship,” said Wolverines coach John Beilein on Tuesday. “It means there’s great parity.”
Beilein was as positive as one could be about a game in which his first-place team was, in the words of redshirt junior guard Charles Matthews, “punked” by the conference’s cellar dweller.
“It just shows who they are. They’re a top-100 team,” Beilein said of Penn State. “All you will make a whole lot about their Big Ten record, just look at their scores. They’re a basket or two away from being a team in the middle of our league with all those games they’ve played. We lose to a top-100 team on the road, it’s not the end of the world.”
Coachspeak or not, Beilein has a point — the Nittany Lions are ranked 347th in KenPom.com’s “luck” rating, factoring in the number of close losses they’ve suffered. Penn State might be just 9-15, but its KenPom rating of 58th is the highest of any team with less than 10 wins, by a wide margin. It was always capable of beating Michigan if enough swung in its favor.
Matthews, however, was far more critical in his evaluation.
“(No) sense of urgency, lack of focus right there,” he said. “Simple as that.”
But underlying these contrasting postgame sentiments is a point of agreement between coach and player. Beilein indirectly noted it when he extolled the Big Ten’s depth. Matthews was more explicit. The Wolverines aren’t flying above the conference’s pressure cooker anymore — they’ve been dragged back in, and their mentality must be adjusted accordingly.
“You got to respect each and every game,” Matthews said. “Lack of discipline, lack of effort, not having a sense of urgency. I tell my guys, all of our losses came to teams who at the time weren’t ranked. … Clearly (that) has to do something with our focus.”
The problems that were on display in Happy Valley didn’t start there, but the loss might serve a benefit as a much-needed wake-up call. To take advantage of it, Michigan needs to learn from what went wrong Tuesday and, if Matthews is representative of anything, it has the sense of urgency needed to do so.
“I’m not gonna hang my head and quit before the end of the season,” Matthews said. “We gotta go out fighting, nothing to lose. Get my teammates to rally on with me. We gotta be better.”
That starts as soon as Saturday, when Maryland comes to Crisler Center with a much stronger team than Penn State. The Terrapins represent a new reality for the Wolverines: if they want to achieve their ultimate goals — celebrating a conference title in their rivals’ arena, a third straight Big Ten Tournament championship or a deep run in March — there’s no margin for error. Not in arguably the toughest conference in America.
The path to achieving those goals isn’t as straightforward as it once was. But on Tuesday, Matthews couldn’t have been more clear:
“Don’t get punked. It’s simple. Don’t get punked.”