RUSTY MILLER, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Now the ball’s in your court, Sparty.
No. 15 Michigan did its part by upending No. 22 Ohio State 70-60 on Tuesday night, giving the Wolverines a half-game edge in the Big Ten race. Now ninth-ranked Michigan State gets a chance to pull even again when it hosts Northwestern on Thursday night.
The date to circle on the calendar is Feb. 23. That’s when Michigan and Michigan State meet in Ann Arbor with the conference trophy possibly riding on the outcome.
But there’s a lot of work to do before and after that showdown.
“As John and I were talking before the game, every night is a war,” said Buckeyes coach Thad Matta of his discussion with Michigan’s John Beilein.
Outsiders might look at the conference and say this isn’t a vintage year. After all, there is no single, dominant team hailed as a national contender.
But the Big Ten’s depth might be as good as ever. Everybody’s taking their lumps in a season in which even the bottom teams have pulled off upsets, road wins have come more frequently than ever and it seems there’s another major surprise every night of the week.
“It is great to be at the top of this conference, but we still have six games to go — with some really tough games coming up,” Beilein said.
The Wolverines (18-6, 10-2) host No. 21 Wisconsin on Saturday, then have a full week off before welcoming — OK, not exactly “welcoming” — the Spartans onto their home court.
After that they go to Purdue and Illinois and host Minnesota and Indiana.
Michigan, of course, is without big man Mitch McGary, out indefinitely after back surgery on Jan. 7.
Everybody has a tale of woe, it seems.
Already hampered by injuries — Branden Dawson is out with a broken hand, Keith Appling is nursing a wrist injury and Adreian Payne continues to battle a sprained right foot — Michigan State (20-4, 9-2) is entering its busiest part of the season.
Starting with the game against Northwestern, the Spartans play four games in 11 days, including that big game in Ann Arbor. They close with games against Illinois and No. 16 Iowa at home before capping the regular season at Ohio State.
“We’re down to seven games in the regular season — and it’s hard to believe,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “With four home games, we’ve got to take advantage.”
Iowa (18-6, 7-4) is alone in third place, two games back in the loss column. The Hawkeyes play four of their final seven games on the road, starting with Saturday’s game at Penn State.
Also on tap are trips to Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan State, along with home games against Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois.
In a season of surprises in the Big Ten, perhaps the biggest is Michigan. With national player of the year Trey Burke and his running mate Tim Hardaway Jr. leaving early for the NBA off a team that went to the national championship game last April, the Wolverines took a big hit heading into this season.
Then McGary was sidelined after playing just eight games. Almost no one thought the Wolverines — no matter how talented the rest of the roster — would contend this season.
Instead, they put together a 10-game winning streak that included victories in their first eight Big Ten games.
Instead of a team built on one or two superstars, the Wolverines get contributions from a lot of people.
“It’s great. I don’t know if we expected this this year,” Beilein said after the win at Ohio State. “We’re watching these two kids play in the NBA right now, and they’re doing really well. And I’m saying, ‘Jeez, we’d better have made it to the Final Four last year because those were really two good players.’ Now when you have that dropoff, we didn’t know where it was going to come from.”
But Michigan has found a way.
“We’ve had some kids who have been able to sort of step up,” he said. “There’s different guys who’ve had really good games.”
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