BLOOMINGTON—Tabbed as the “Game of the Season” prior to tip-off, Saturday’s prizefight between the No. 1 Michigan basketball team and No. 3 Indiana lived up to every bit of its billing and then some. The two frontrunners in the Big Ten title race played with intensity typically reserved for March, each team playing like the best team in the country for significant stretches.
But in the end, Indiana — playing at home in perhaps the nation’s loudest, most intimidating arena — proved to be too much for the Wolverines. With Michigan trailing by seven and trying to hang on for one final run, preseason-All American Cody Zeller out-hustled four Michigan players for a loose-ball offensive rebound with just under two minutes left. The Hoosiers went on to make their free throws to seal the game, as the Wolverines fell, 81-73, despite clawing back from two double-digit deficits.
The loss likely means that for the fourth straight week, there will be a new No. 1 team.
“This is a young team, and these environments have tremendous opportunities for them to grow, and that’s our only message right now,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We can’t be patting each other on the back, and moral victories and things like that — no, we’re very disappointed, but we can’t dwell on it.
“That was two good teams playing. Somebody was going to win that game and we didn’t. Our kids held their own.”
Zeller and sophomore point guard Trey Burke lived up to all of their preseason hype. The two preseason All-Americans and Player of the Year candidates at times single-handedly carried their teams, combining for 44 points. Burke finished with 25 points and eight assists, while Zeller had 19 points and nine rebounds — three of them on the offensive end, which were all slammed home for put-back dunks.
But for as well as Burke played, Michigan couldn’t recover from the conspicuous absence of two of its freshmen: guard Nik Stauskas and forward Glenn Robinson III. Stauskas, who Beilein said missed Friday’s practice with the flu, finished with 10 points, though one of his two 3-pointers came in the final moments, with the game already out of reach. The freshman, known for his shooting ability, connected on just one of his eight first-half shots and failed to find any rhythm.
Despite playing the entirety of the game, Robinson scored just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, while pulling down four rebounds. But Beilein stopped short of pinning Robinson’s unproductive night solely on the freshman.
“We’ve got to get him the ball first,” Beilein said when asked if he’d like to see Robinson play more aggressively. “That’s something that’s a work in progress.
“It’s just all part of it. We’ve got to continue to try to … recognize what we’re doing and (see) how we can get Glenn more involved.”
But the game’s biggest disparity came on the free throw line, where Indiana displayed an impressive propensity to get to the charity stripe. The Wolverines attempted just seven free throws, while the Hoosiers shot 22-of-25 from the line.
After trailing by as many as 15 points, Michigan (7-2 Big Ten, 20-2 overall) showed the first-half resilience it lacked in Columbus in a loss to Ohio State in January. The Wolverines shot just 2-of-11 from 3-point range in the first half, while the Hoosiers shot 50 percent from deep. Burke and Zeller pulled their weight early and often, with Burke scoring a game-leading 14 points in the opening stanza, while Zeller notched 11 points to go along with six boards. Though the Hoosiers owned the first half, Burke stunned the raucous arena by draining a step-back jumper with just four seconds remaining, allowing the Wolverines to go into the locker room trailing just 36-32.
After Indiana (8-1, 20-2) led by double-digits for much of the opening 20 minutes, Michigan scored 17 of the half’s final 25 points, including an 8-0 run, to chip away at Indiana’s lead. The Hoosiers were held to just 16 points in the final 15 minutes of the half after coming out firing in the opening five minutes. Indiana scored 20 points in the game’s opening five minutes, making its first six shots, including four threes.
“I think we did a good job at responding to their punch, we just didn’t get over the hump,” Burke said. “That’s something that we’re continuing to try to make adjustments on and get better at — just coming out and making the first punch.”
Just minutes into the second half, Michigan tied the game on a 3-pointer from Stauskas, but Indiana followed with an 11-0 run. But just like in the first half, the young Wolverines failed to go away, responding with an 11-2 run to bring the game back to within two points with 11 minutes remaining.
Junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in with 18 points and freshman forward Mitch McGary played well, scoring 10 points and pulling down seven rebounds. But the rest of the Wolverines’ supporting cast — including redshirt junior forward Jordan, who was limited to just two minutes after spraining his ankle last weekend — failed to produce enough offense to topple the Hoosiers on the road.
With Kansas also losing Saturday, Michigan could still find itself ranked in Monday’s top-two spots.