The Big Ten basketball experts knew exactly what was going to happen this season before it even started. Michigan State would battle for another title, while Michigan would be stuck in the middle, fighting for a tournament bid.
And that’s exactly how it started. The Spartans jumped out to first place, and had it all to themselves with just two games left. The Wolverines spent most of the season in the middle of the pack.
The experts were looking pretty smart – until Michigan started mastering head coach John Beilein’s unconventional system. The Wolverines beat Michigan State at home by a single point, then knocked off sixth-ranked Ohio State – just two of Michigan’s 15 straight home victories. With just a week left in the regular season, the Wolverines had a chance to win their first Big Ten title since 1986 – the longest drought in school history.
On paper, this team had no business competing for a banner. Before the season started, they lost their biggest star, junior Darius Morris, to the Los Angeles Lakers. They replaced him with a freshman – from Columbus, of all places. But they bought into Beilein’s system, and it’s working, thanks to great senior leadership, a lot of grit, and a little luck.
But with everything to gain, they lost their last home contest to a mediocre Purdue team. They needed a minor miracle to grab a share of the title: the Spartans had to lose their last two games.
State got creamed at Indiana. One down. Then, on the last day of the season, the Spartans faced Ohio State for all the marbles. If they won, they would secure their seventh Big Ten title in 15 years, and their third outright. But if they lost, they’d have to share it with both Ohio State and Michigan.
I’m guessing they probably didn’t want to do that, any more than Wolverine fans wanted to root for the Buckeyes. But desperate times require desperate measures.
After blasting out to a 15-point lead, State lost third-leading scorer Branden Dawson to a knee injury, then lost their lead. But they fought back to tie the game with less than a minute left. The Buckeyes, however, walked right down the court, hit a jump shot at the very last second, and won the game.
As one Michigan fan said on Facebook: “I’ll go back to my [Buckeye] jokes tomorrow, but a giant thank you to Ohio State for helping deliver the Big Ten (co-)title back to Ann Arbor.”
It was over. Yes, the Spartans had earned a share of the title, but when they posed in front of their banner, they looked more like a team that had just lost a two-game lead and a 15-point advantage, and had to share their title not just with the despised Buckeyes, but with the truly hated Wolverines.
It echoed the football season, when the Spartans beat Michigan, won the division, and almost won the conference title game – then were rewarded with a lesser bowl game than Michigan’s. In basketball, once again, State had a better year, and once again, Michigan got what State wanted.
And that’s why, even though they got the exact same thing – a share of the title – the Spartans are despondent and the Wolverines are ecstatic.
Gore Vidal once said, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” The Spartans succeeded, but denied themselves the deliciousness of Michigan’s downfall. It’s a safe bet they are determined to get the last laugh in the Big Ten tournament this weekend.
The Madness is just beginning.
About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!