By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – If Michigan manages to emerge unscathed from its final three games, it will win the Big Ten regular season title outright for the first time since 1986.
Back then, not a single player on Michigan’s current roster had even been born yet. While the accomplishment of winning the conference championship does not guarantee a deep NCAA tournament run, it is currently the main goal for the Wolverines.
“As you get into March, you want to be in position for a league championship because a league championship usually means an NCAA berth, and we all know anything can happen there, so it’s a great step in the right direction,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said. “That’s the focus right now – win the Big Ten championship. That’s our only focus.
“At the same time, through a roll of the ball last year we finished fifth in the league and still had a pretty good year, so while we focus on that, still try to look at the big picture as well,” Beilein concluded.
The Wolverines sit alone in first place in the conference standings, a game ahead of in-state rival and longtime power Michigan State. The Spartans have captured at least a share of the regular season crown in three of the last five years, and Michigan won a share of the title in 2012.
Winners of two straight games, the Wolverines needed overtime Wednesday to finish off Purdue, 77-76, and win consecutive games for the first time in nearly a month. The Wolverines had won 10 in a row before entering the lose-win-lose-win-lose-win pattern they finally snapped Wednesday against the Boilermakers. At last on another win streak, Michigan can make it three in a row Saturday and further shut the door on Michigan State’s hopes of stealing the Big Ten title.
Next on the docket for the Wolverines is Minnesota. When the teams met back in early January, Michigan squeaked out a 63-60 win. Beilein said the team was fortunate to win that game and said he would make sure the Wolverines understood that.
“Their pressure bothered us several times during the game,” Beilein said. “Of course we’re a more veteran backcourt now, but they are as well. We couldn’t get away from them. They were in command a lot of the game. we just made a lot of really good plays, and Zak Irvin hit five 3s while Glenn Robinson sat on the bench. So we had good fortune in that game to win it.”
Minnesota (18-11, 7-9 Big Ten) won its last game, knocking off No. 20 Iowa. The Gophers have also upset then-No. 11 Ohio State and then-No. 9 Wisconsin. A spoiler threat all season, Minnesota will try and play that role again Saturday.
“Minnesota presents a lot of challenges,” Beilein said. “They change defenses. They’ve got great pressure on the ball. They force turnovers, and they have really veteran guys … They’re sitting right there with an opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament, so I’m sure they’re going to bring everything they have, and with us having an opportunity to win the Big Ten conference, we’re going to try and do the same.”
On the bubble for the NCAA tournament, the Gophers have plenty to play for even though they have not contended in the Big Ten this season. Beilein knows the Wolverines will need to match that desperation and intensity.
“I know that they’re going to come in here with a mindset, a ‘burn the boats’ type of idea, they have to come in and get wins,” Beilein said. “As a result, we have to understanding going into this game, we’ve got to have the same mentality we had when Michigan State came in here. We’re both really playing for something really big.”