Storylines such as the one that’s about to unravel Feb. 23 in Ann Arbor epitomize the Michigan vs. Michigan State rivalry.
Once upon a time, they were underdogs searching for a little respect. Today, however, John Beilein’s No. 20-ranked Wolverines (18-7, 10-3) are in the thick of the Big Ten championship race and projected to be a threat come March.
Reaching the 2013 national title bout has certainly done wonders for confidence—and Beilein’s bunch isn’t short in that department.
From Jan. 18-25, Michigan knocked off a trio of top 10-ranked teams, including Michigan State—which lost 80-75 in East Lansing—proving that it can play with anyone, anywhere.
And as usual, Tom Izzo’s No. 13-ranked Spartans (21-5, 10-3) are in the midst of their annual run toward March—having the chance to pick up a conference banner is a mere prelude to the “real season.”
There are, of course, other contenders—the league isn’t simply Michigan and Michigan State. However, as it’s been all year, the B1G title belt is one of theirs to lose come Sunday at Crisler.
Still Hanging Around
A step or two behind, but not completely out of the race, Iowa and Wisconsin are the Great Lakes State’s top challengers.
The No. 16-ranked Badgers (21-5, 8-5) have wins over the Spartans and Wolverines, making them an obvious “dark horse” to sneak in through the backdoor due to a favorable schedule.
Ranked No. 15 in the land, the Hawkeyes (19-6, 8-4) have a split with Michigan and 71-69 OT loss to the Spartans—but they’ll get an opportunity for redemption March 6. If Roy Devyn Marble goes for another 21 points, there is a strong possibility that Iowa walks away from the Breslin Center with a victory.
The following table highlights remaining schedules for Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes and Bo Ryan’s Badgers, who square off Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye in Iowa City.
|Big Ten Battleground|
|Feb. 18 at Indiana||Idle|
|Feb. 22 vs. Wisconsin||Feb. 22 at Iowa|
|Feb. 25 at Minnesota||Feb. 25 vs. Indiana|
|March 1 vs. Purdue||March 2 at Penn State|
|March 6 at Michigan State||March 5 vs. Purdue|
|March 8 vs. Illinois||March 9 at Nebraska|
|ESPN team clubhouse homepages|
A New Norm?
Historically, a down-to-the-wire sprint between the Spartans and Wolverines hasn’t decided the Big Ten.
Comfortable at the top for years, the Spartans have usually focused on everyone else but the Wolverines, who, up until recently, have been relatively ignored by the league at-large since the 1990s.
Seemingly inevitable, Izzo and Beilein’s scrum for it all this year could be commonplace until one of them calls it quits. Ann Arbor seems to be catching up to East Lansing, becoming a beacon for elite talent while fostering an environment conducive to winning.
During the 2011-12 season, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State each finished 13-5 and shared the conference title. Holding serve at home, Izzo and Beilein split the season series.
In hindsight, an in-state sweep would have clinched the league outright.
Feb. 23 is more than a pivotal duel; it’s the Spartans' perfect time for revenge. But Saturday will also provide the ideal stage for Michigan, which continues to defy logic by appearing better without star center Mitch McGary—who has missed most of the year due to a back injury.
Indiana is regrouping, and that could take a year or two. The same goes for one-time conference sluggers Illinois and Purdue.
Right now, the B1G belongs to Izzo and Beilein. Fans may want to get used to that.
|Cream of the Crop|
|Team||B1G Record||Games left||Key Games|
|No. 13 Michigan State||10-3||5||No. 20 Michigan, No. 15 Iowa, No. 24 Ohio State|
|No. 20 Michigan||10-3||5||No. 13 Michigan State, remaining vs. unranked opponents|
|No. 15 Iowa||8-4||6||No. 16 Wisconsin, No. 13 Michigan State, remaining vs. URO|
|No. 16 Wisconsin||8-5||5||No. 15 Iowa, season finale vs. Nebraska, which is 6-6 in B1G and 6-3 in past nine games|
|BigTen.Org (standings accurate as of Feb. 17)|
In all likelihood, four losses will get the job done—or 14 wins, depending on how you choose to view things.
But in reality, the clinching win total could be 12 or 13; the Big Ten is and has been a crazy place, especially lately with Nebraska playing as well as anyone in the league.
This past Sunday, the Huskers (6-6) won their lone meeting with Izzo, 60-51, in East Lansing. They’ve also won six of their past nine games, making them a late entry to the party.
Nebraska's remaining swing includes faceoffs with sub.-500 club members such as Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois and Indiana.
That being said, Ohio State (7-6) also has a puncher’s chance. After crawling to a 2-4 start in conference play, Thad Matta’s team finally woke up, acted like a legitimate contender and found itself on the razor’s edge of a league race.
On March 9, the Buckeyes and Spartans end the 2013-14 slate. It’s safe to assume that Matta’s team will use their final stretch of Northwestern, Minnesota, Penn State and Indiana to prepare for a potential conference-decider with Michigan State.
But don’t bet on that happening. This thing should be called good after Sunday.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81