Welcome to Bizarro Sunday in the Big Ten
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — In this winding, hard-fought, often exhilarating, always unpredictable, hold-your-breath Big Ten basketball season, nothing is ever certain.
Not even on the final day of the regular season.
By the time the sun rises on Monday morning, the entire state of Indiana could be hung over from celebrating the Hoosiers’ first outright Big Ten championship since the early 1990s. Or, there could be as many as four teams with a claim to this year’s conference crown.
“It doesn't totally surprise me because there are so many good teams,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose Spartans have won or tied for three of the last four regular season titles.
“We were going to beat the daylights out of each other.”
It has been an electrifying thrill-ride that brings us to this moment, this Bizarro Sunday, on the final day of a Big Ten season that has been nothing short of brilliant. It is a Sunday where folks in Columbus will be cheering on their most bitter rivals from the north, where an in-state feud between the Maize and Blue and the Green and White is put on the back burner.
A Sunday where Columbus-native Trey Burke and the Michigan Wolverines carry not only their own title hopes, but also those of Ohio State and Michigan State, two sworn enemies of the team that calls Ann Arbor home.
“It's really weird. You never see those guys in green, or Ohio State, root for you,” Burke said this week.
“It was kind of like the situation we were in last year with Michigan State playing Ohio State.”
After losing to Purdue by 14 at home, the Wolverines won road games at Illinois and Penn State to close out last year’s regular season. They finished 13-5 in the conference, but still needed a game-winning dagger from William Buford in East Lansing to deliver a three-way tie for the championship.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Coach (John) Beilein told me before we played in the conference tournament last year,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said, “he said, 'I've never seen a group of Michigan guys rooting so (for Ohio State) hard when Buford made the shot’.”
Now the roles will be reversed.
All eyes will once again be fixed on Columbus and Ann Arbor on Sunday as Aaron Craft and Trey Burke take center stage for the grand finale. Craft, the reigning defensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and the Buckeyes host Illinois (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a must-win game for Matta’s bunch, but they will need more than just a win over Illinois, who pounded the Buckeyes by 19 points back in January.
Ohio State also lost by 22 at Wisconsin this year, and Indiana put up 81 points on them in Columbus, but the Buckeyes have been resilient. They have refused to stay down, rallying for an eight-point win over fourth-ranked Michigan State and a nine-point victory over No. 2 Indiana in Bloomington on Tuesday night.
That win may be the defining moment of a Big Ten season that will go down in the history books, mainly because it kept the door open for not only Ohio State but also Michigan and Michigan State.
“It's my dream that this program is to the point where every year in the last week ... we still have a mathematical chance to win a championship,” Izzo said after his team’s 58-43 win over No. 22 Wisconsin on Thursday night.
“What happens, happens. I mean that because we had our chance to do it.”
So have a lot of other teams.
From the first stunning upset back in December – when Minnesota snapped Michigan State’s six-game winning streak with a startling 13-point win at Williams Arena in Minneapolis – to Penn State’s unfathomable win over No. 4-ranked Michigan, it has been a wild ride every step of the way.
Now, fittingly, it all comes down to this, one of the most enlivening Big Ten seasons in recent memory – one that put the conference back on the map at a time when its football profile is in question – will be decided on the final day of the regular season.
Indiana. Ohio State. Michigan. Michigan State: they all have a chance to be a part of it.
The Hoosiers have been ranked as the No. 1 team in the country on three separate occasions, and each time Tom Crean saw his team toppled from the peak of the mountain.
First it was Illinois who knocked off the Crimson and Cream giant in a surprising 74-72 comeback, but Indiana responded to that loss with wins over No. 10 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan State.
Indiana looked like the best team in America during that 72-68 win in East Lansing, where the Hoosiers had not won since 1991, but losses to Minnesota and Ohio State in their last three have kept them from cutting down the nets in celebration of an outright Big Ten championship.
Now they have to go to Ann Arbor, where Beilein and the Wolverines have not lost all season (the loss to Purdue last year is their only one at Crisler Arena in two years). Ohio State came the closest, taking them to overtime before Burke put the game away at the end.
It’s only appropriate Ohio State will need Michigan to keep that 17-game home win streak alive on Sunday, but it won’t matter if the Buckeyes don’t keep their own going first.
“We have to take care of business against Illinois before anything can happen,” the always-astute Craft acknowledged.
“We got a big game against an opponent that handled us the first time we played them.”
After all, if there is one lesson we’ve all learned from this Big Ten season it’s that anything can happen.
*The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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