The Big Ten widely has been considered the best conference in the nation this season, and it may be no surprise the league race has come down to the final day with four teams seeking at least a share of the championship.
It’s not exactly a coincidence, either, that a matchup between those thought to be the conference’s top two teams ultimately will decide it.
Second-ranked Indiana can win its first outright Big Ten title in 20 years with a victory Sunday over No. 7 Michigan, which looks to finish unbeaten at home for the first time in 36 seasons.
The Hoosiers (25-5, 13-4) have been the favorites from the start, but they missed an opportunity to earn an outright league title for the first time since 1992-93 by falling at home to No. 14 Ohio State 67-58 on Tuesday.
That defeat left the door open for the Wolverines (25-5, 12-5), who won at Purdue 80-75 on Wednesday. A Michigan win on Sunday would give it a second straight Big Ten championship after splitting it last season with No. 10 Michigan State and Ohio State.
The Spartans and Buckeyes also could share this season’s crown with wins on Sunday if the Wolverines pick up a victory.
“We find ourselves with a great opportunity and a great challenge at the same time,” coach John Beilein said. “These games now are make-or-break games. There are a lot of teams watching this game that have championship implications on the line.
“It’s going to be a struggle, it’s going to be a battle, and we’re going to have to have the courage to get it done.”
Michigan also will be seeking to finish unbeaten at home for the first time since the 1976-77, and Trey Burke has been a major reason for his team’s success.
The sophomore guard is a finalist for the John Wooden Award – a list that includes Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo – and ranks second in the conference averaging 19.1 points.
“The leadership aspect has really grown and his shot selection right now is really good,” Beilein said of Burke, whose 3.65 assist-to-turnover ratio is the best in the nation. “Right now, Trey Burke is as good as any player I’ve ever coached. He’s such a winner.”
Burke’s 25 points and eight assists, though, couldn’t prevent then-No. 1 Michigan from falling 81-73 at then-No. 3 Indiana on Feb. 2, as Zeller and Christian Watford each finished with double-doubles for the Hoosiers.
No team has won two straight meetings over the last 10 games of this series, and Indiana will be looking to do so while capitalizing on its second chance to win the conference title outright.
The Hoosiers still cut down the nets after Tuesday’s loss to celebrate their first regular-season conference title since 2001-02.
“We earned that right,” senior guard Jordan Hulls said. “Obviously we didn’t like to lose, but we earned that right to cut down the nets. We would have liked to have won but we couldn’t dwell on that.”
Indiana was held far below its Big Ten-leading scoring average of 81.1 points, and coach Tom Crean would like to see his squad be more aggressive offensively in this contest.
“We have to make sure that our foot is on the gas pedal, we really do,” Crean said. “We have been very good at coming right back at them after they score, especially on the road.”
The Hoosiers also are tied with Iowa for the conference lead in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 38.7 percent shooting, and Beilein expects them to be tough at both ends of the floor Sunday.
“They shouldn’t change,” Beilein said. “They’re scoring a ton of points and if you look at their defensive numbers, they’re scary.”
The Wolverines are second in the conference in scoring at 75.6 points per game and shooting 49.0 percent – just behind Indiana’s 49.1 percent.
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