As entertaining as the first meeting between the Indiana Hoosiers and Michigan Wolverines proved to be on Feb. 2 (81-73 win for Indiana), there was an underlying assumption that the regular-season finale would supplant that marquee matchup in terms of significance.
Five weeks later, that premonition has become reality.
On Sunday at 4 p.m. ET, the Hoosiers will visit the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor and match up with the only other Big Ten team within the same atmosphere in terms of NBA talent.
Both teams have strong cases for Player of the Year candidates—Victor Oladipo for Indiana, Trey Burke for Michigan—and Sunday’s outcome will likely weigh heavily on the minds of voters.
But of far greater importance than individual accolades, Sunday’s game holds mammoth postseason implications that will inevitably affect the rest of the conference.
Which team stands to lose the most with a loss on Sunday? Is it the Hoosiers, desperately trying to prove they deserve the No. 1 overall seed? Or is it the Wolverines, who narrowly kept their conference title hopes alive on Wednesday night with an 80-75 win at Purdue?
The Case for Indiana
If Indiana wins on Sunday, it will secure the program’s first outright Big Ten title since 1993, when Bob Knight was stalking the sidelines.
Indiana already had one shot at securing the league title, but a hungry Ohio State Buckeyes team stunned the Hoosiers on Tuesday night, winning 67-58 in Bloomington. They were outworked on the glass (34-28), burned in transition and victimized by a team that simply played with more drive.
Even worse, the Buckeyes crashed Indiana’s senior night party, leaving the three Hoosier seniors with an empty feeling as they delivered heartfelt speeches and awkwardly cut down both nets to celebrate a partial Big Ten title.
Sunday represents a chance at redemption for the Hoosiers. A win, and the title is theirs, all by their lonesome. But a loss could take a significant toll on the Hoosiers’ pride.
Indiana’s psyche is already wounded from the recent losses to Ohio State and Minnesota. Another defeat could demoralize a team heading into the postseason. Entering the postseason having doubled its loss total in the final four regular-season games doesn’t sound ideal for Crean.
A win guarantees the Hoosiers the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, meaning a first-round bye and a matchup against the winner of the No. 8 or No. 9 seed.
Due to their loss on Tuesday, the Hoosiers might not wind up in the Midwest Region. That means that Indiana wouldn’t get a chance to play in potential Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matchups in Indianapolis.
The Case for Michigan
It’s not as if the Wolverines would welcome a second loss to the Hoosiers.
In fact, after escaping Mackey Arena with a comeback win over Purdue, the Wolverines are a Sunday win away from forcing a four-way tie atop the Big Ten (assuming Michigan State and Ohio State hold serve).
But if Indiana beats Michigan, there’s a chance that the Wolverines fall to the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament. That would mean they would have to play in the first round.
For that to happen, Michigan State would have to beat Northwestern, Ohio State would have to top Illinois, and Wisconsin would need to take down Penn State. That's possible, though it may not be likely.
The No. 5 seed plays the No. 12 seed, and that No. 12 seed is going to be Penn State—the same team that shocked the college basketball world with a win over the Wolverines on Feb. 27.
In short, Michigan can avoid any of this with a win. But a loss likely takes it out of the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, among other undesirable results.
Due to what’s at stake for Indiana—its momentum, an outright conference title and the potential location for the NCAA tournament—a loss would be more detrimental to the Hoosiers' cause.