A mid-February upset loss in the Big Ten would typically be monumental, something that alters the course of the race for the regular-season championship. But in this wild and wacky season, it’s just another day at the office.
The two teams perched atop the conference standings, Michigan and Michigan State, were both upset on their home courts Sunday, bumping both to a 10-3 record in the league. So, with a massive, potentially championship-deciding meeting between the two coming up this Sunday, the two teams are right where they were before: going up against each other for the regular-season title.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan ran into a Wisconsin team that has most definitely rediscovered the type of play that made it one of the nation’s top-three teams earlier in the season. The Badgers have now knocked off the Spartans and Wolverines in two of their last three games, though they didn’t need a buzzer-beater Sunday. They just took it to the Wolverines.
Michigan scored just 19 points in the first half, its lowest first-half point total in more than three years. And even a furious second-half comeback that shrunk the deficit all the way to three points was answered by Wisconsin, which went on to a 75-62 win.
John Beilein’s response? The Badgers are good.
“I was super impressed with Wisconsin tonight, I just think that they were terrific,” the Michigan head coach said after the game. “They’re a difficult matchup for anybody they play, and they showed that. ... And once we get down like we got down, it’s tough to come back because of their ball-control offense. They make timely shots, they’ve got a great plan and really played a high-I.Q. game today. So we’ll grow from it like we always do, and hopefully this is helpful for us in the future, helps us win in future games.”
But while the Wolverines had a tough matchup against a team re-asserting itself as one of the conference’s best, the Spartans ran into perennial Big Ten basement-dweller Nebraska. Despite the fact that the Huskers are drastically improved this season — and could even find their way to the NCAA tournament — it’s a matchup the Spartans should have won. Instead, it was Nebraska on top, 60-51.
“We got what we deserved, and the only guy that takes the blame for that is me,” Michigan State head coach Tom izzo said. “It’s my job to get them ready to play, and we didn’t look ready to play. For that, don’t blame them, blame me. They don’t get paid. I get paid to do a job and they get a chance to do their job. Energy is the biggest thing that you need in these games. There have been a lot of teams that aren’t bringing it. That’s why there have been some bizarre games. Today, it was the Spartans that didn’t bring it. Nebraska, they were junkyard dogs. They remind me of some of our old teams. They took it at us. They talked it, they walked it, they played it. I thought they were tough. I thought they played well defensively. I think they made some incredible shots. I think Tim (Miles) is one of the great new coaches in this league and he did a hell of a job. To be honest with you, we got what we deserved.”
Could the Wolverines’ loss had something to do with the Spartans’ struggles? They announced that Michigan had lost at the Breslin Center, but Izzo doesn’t think it had an effect. If anything, he was upset it didn’t have more of an effect.
“No, there’s so many games left to play,” Izzo said. “To me, it had none. I can’t answer it for the players. My question would be then why shouldn’t it give you momentum? ... If it worked and we went out and won by 20, we would be saying that is a motivational thing. That should motivate a team, but a team that’s playing where we’re playing right now shouldn’t need any motivation about anything. ... This is not going to be as easy as most people think. A little controversy might bring us a little closer together and maybe they’ll stop listening to the outside world and listen to the inside world.”
So what does it all mean in the grand scheme of things? In terms of the regular-season title, the Wolverines and Spartans are still the two teams to beat. But their margins for error have become considerably smaller. In the conference standings, the two teams sit just one game ahead of Iowa in the loss column and are not too far ahead of 8-5 Wisconsin. With five games remaining on each team’s schedule, there’s a good chance a third or even fourth team could be contending for the regular-season title at season’s end.
But, as Beilein explained regarding his team’s sudden alternating pattern of wins and losses, that’s life in the Big Ten.
“I think it speaks to the Big Ten is what it speaks to,” Beilein said Sunday. “It’s not about, ‘They weren’t up for this game, or they were down for this game.’ No. What it is about is we’re playing really good teams and you have to play well, and sometimes you can’t control that. ... You can’t put a title on this and say we lost because of this or this. Sometimes it’s just going to happen because the league is so darn good.”