By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 2, 2012
CHAMPAIGN — With just one conference game remaining on the docket, the No. 13 Michigan basketball team has a share of the Big Ten regular season title in sight.
After getting blown out on senior night Saturday against Purdue, it seemed as though the Wolverines’ hopes of putting up another Big Ten banner in Crisler Center had withered away.
But thanks to an Indiana victory over No. 5 Michigan State, a Wisconsin win over No. 10 Ohio State and Thursday’s 72-61 triumph over Illinois, Michigan is back in the title picture.
The Wolverines are a game back of Michigan State and still need two outcomes on Sunday to be crowned champs — a win against last-place Penn State in State College and a Buckeye victory against the Spartans in East Lansing.
“We’re not overlooking Penn State at all,” said freshman point guard Trey Burke. “We’re going to go out there and try to handle our business like we did tonight. We handle our business, then we’re definitely looking for that Big Ten championship. Hopefully Ohio State can win.”
After losing its first five games in opposing venues, Michigan has found a hot streak on the road. The Wolverines have won three straight away from home and will look to get an all-important fourth in a few days.
“There’s a couple things going on,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “In my mind, we’re 4-4 on the road in a year that the league is really so solid and the home teams have been so good. It’s a goal to finish 5-4 on the road in the league. That would be a great accomplishment, given the fact that we were able to hold court most of the time at home.”
Though Michigan is aiming for a share of the Big Ten title, it won’t be able to get the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The Wolverines’ loss to Purdue gives the Spartans the edge in a tiebreaker, as the Boilermakers are higher in the standings than Northwestern, who beat Michigan State. These teams represent the only differences in Michigan and Michigan State’s conference losses.
BURKE GRANTED RECORD: Early in the second half, Trey Burke found senior guard Stu Douglass for a 3-pointer. The shot gave Michigan an 8-point lead, but it did a little more.
The assist gave Burke his 141st helper of the year, which broke Gary Grant’s school record, set in 1985.
“I really wasn’t worried about it coming into this game,” Burke said. “I didn’t even really know about it until recently. It’s just a blessing from God to be able to break a great player, Gary Grant’s, freshman record.”
Burke finished with five assists on the game, and with a handful of contests left this season, he could vault himself into the top 10 on the all-time single season assists lists at Michigan.
“I don’t pay much attention to that stuff,” Beilein said about the record. “I just love coaching the kid and he’s just done a wonderful job controlling the ball today.”
CHARITABLE STRIPE: Entering Thursday’s game, the Wolverines had been far from spectacular from the free-throw line.
The team had shot just over 70 percent this season and crunch-time misses have made closing victories more challenging. But something about Assembly Hall had the Wolverines feeling good from the stripe.
Michigan made 21 of 23 foul shots, a number of which came in the final minutes to close out the hard-charging Fighting Illini. At 91 percent, it was both the best free-throw percentage the Wolverines have shot and it was the most free throws the team has attempted this season.
Sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who has been dependable from the charity stripe most of the season, went 4-for-10 in last Tuesday’s overtime victory against Northwestern. The misses could have proved devastating if Michigan dropped that game in Evanston. Thursday, however, Hardaway looked in rhythm at the foul line and made his first nine shots before his 10 rimmed in-and-out in the final minute.
“I was very disappointed in myself (after Northwestern),” Hardaway said. “I felt like we could have put the game away at Northwestern a long time ago with my free throws.”
He remedied that by putting in extra time at the gym during Michigan’s break from classes.
“We’ve been shooting a lot of free throws lately in practice,” Burke said. “Every single day, (Beilein) has us shooting an amount of free throws and it’s paying off in the games.”