Michigan continued its successful defense of its home turf Saturday afternoon by romping Ohio State. The Wolverines have not lost a single conference game at Crisler Arena, and frankly, they can’t really afford to if they want to win the Big Ten.
But the Wolverines did what they had to, and they did it well. Their pinpoint shooting, aggressive defense and toughness on the glass reminded all of us of what this team is capable of doing.
But that’s in the past. Away games at Purdue and Wisconsin are in the near future, and that is what Michigan should be focused on.
After the Wolverines’ victory over Iowa, their seventh conference win, it seemed fairly certain that all Michigan would need to do to finish at the top of the conference would be to win its three remaining home games and pick up one road win. This would give them 11 wins and, in a conference that continues to beat itself up in the standings, seemed like it would probably stand up.
One win and one loss later, things seem a little harder now. Eleven wins could still do it, but with the way things are shaping up in the Big Ten the past two weeks, twelve might be necessary.
What does that mean?
It means that two more road wins might be needed. Michigan’s remaining away games are at Purdue, Wisconsin and Penn State.
No win is guaranteed a win in the Big Ten, but at 0-10 in the conference, Penn State isn’t looking very threatening right now. The Wolverines knocked off the Lions at Crisler on Jan. 11, 66-53, and this coming matchup should not be any different for Michigan.
The key to locking up the championship is picking up a victory over the next two games. The top three teams in the conference (Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin) each have eight wins with five games remaining, so unless one of them runs the table, 12 wins will do it. It might end up being totally unnecessary, but that 12th win might end up being the one that puts Michigan ahead of the pack.
“As we go down the stretch, every game is going to be a monumental game,” Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said. “Whatever team can find a way to win one or two on the road, assuming you hold serve at home, will probably be the team that emerges from the pack. We will get a great opportunity to do that next week.”
At 8-3 in the conference, Purdue is currently tied with Michigan. The two play Wednesday night in West Lafayette and in Ann Arbor on March 8. After winning seven of their first eight conference games, the Boilermakers have shown weakness on the road, falling to both Minnesota and Northwestern. But Purdue rebounded from these losses with a crucial win over Illinois Saturday at home, and is ready for Michigan.
With two games remaining against the Boilermakers, the Wolverines control their own destiny against them. A win on Wednesday would significantly help secure Michigan’s championship hopes. Besides its game at Crisler to finish the season, Purdue must play at Michigan State on March 1, where the Spartans will be at an advantage.
If Michigan doesn’t win Wednesday, it must deal with the Badgers on Feb. 26. The Wolverines delivered a blow to Wisconsin at the beginning of the season with their miraculous 15-point comeback, but the Badgers haven’t fallen yet.
With wins in eight of their last nine, they have charged their way back into the conference race after a 0-2 start. Wisconsin will play at Penn State and at Iowa before facing off with the Wolverines in Madison. Although these will be two difficult Big Ten road games for it (particularly Iowa), it is likely that the Badgers will emerge from this stretch at 10-3. If Michigan rolls in at 9-3 after a win over Purdue, a win in Madison is not absolutely necessary, and the Wolverines would be 9-4 with three games to play.
If the Wolverines come in at 8-4 after a loss to Purdue, they can’t afford to leave Madison at 8-5. This could potentially put the Badgers at 11-3 with two games remaining – at Minnesota and home for Illinois. These will be tough games, but Wisconsin is a tough team, and in that scenario, should finish with 12 wins.
Michigan has a chance to take control of the Big Ten race over the next two weeks. A lot can happen over this time, but the Wolverines control their own destiny. If they win the games they are supposed to win, they can take the conference.
But before anyone can start counting road games as wins, the Wolverines must figure out how to maintain confidence outside of Crisler Arena and finish games on the right foot. This is what they did at Ohio State when they clamped down defensively for the last 10 minutes of the second half, but what they failed to do against Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois.
But that’s all in the past. It’s time for the conference leaders to butt heads in a game with major championship implications, and time for Michigan to get tough on the road.
Naweed Sikora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org