Michigan in B1G Driver's Seat After Sweeping Season Series with Michigan State

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 23, 2014

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Nik Stauskas scored 25 points and Caris LeVert added 23 of his own as the Michigan Wolverines tightened their grip on the B1G regular-season title with a 79-70 win over the Michigan State Spartans on Sunday afternoon.

With a little over 10 minutes remaining in the game, it looked like we were headed for a real classic. Gary Harris had just drilled a three-pointer, increasing his game-high total to 18 points and putting the Spartans back in the lead by a score of 52-51.

But it would be nearly five minutes before Michigan State's next made field goal. By the time Travis Trice made that jumper, Michigan had opened up an 11-point lead. The Spartans never got it closer than eight points after that.

During a nine-minute stretch in the second half, LeVert and Stauskas were responsible for all of Michigan's points, combining to outscore Michigan State by a 23-8 margin.

Now, the B1G championship is Michigan's to lose.

Per usual, Spartans supporters will be quick to point out that Michigan State was playing at less than full strength. Branden Dawson is still sidelined with a broken hand, and it's brutally apparent that Keith Appling is still ailing.

However, a loss is a loss, and five of them in the span of nine games is not an ideal way to enter the month of March.

There's still hope that Michigan State will get healthy and be one of the best teams in the NCAA tournament, but the Spartans have just about lost their chance at a B1G regular-season title.

The Wolverines close out the regular season against Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Indianateams that are a combined 20-35 in B1G play.

They could even afford to lose one of those games and still have the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, as they effectively have a two-game lead on the rest of the Big Ten now that they own the tiebreaker against Michigan State.

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Quite the far cry from where Michigan was two months ago, no?

In retrospect, were any of those early losses all that inexcusable?

Plenty of great teams have suffered road losses against Iowa State and Duke, and the Wolverines are still the only team to have come within one lucky bounce of beating a full-strength Arizona.

The neutral-court loss to Charlotte was disappointing, but Derrick Walton Jr. had the worst game of his career and Glenn Robinson III played just nine minutes due to an injury. That doesn't seem so bad compared to, say, Syracuse losing at home to Boston College.

The point of that quick recap of the first month of the season is to suggest that Michigan is deserving of now entering the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

The Wolverines aren't quite there, yet, but what if they close out the regular season 4-0 to get to 23-7 with 10 RPI Top-50 wins?

Once upon a time, winning the B1G regular-season title was all but a guaranteed spot in the tournament as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

Coming into this weekend, most bracketologists were projecting Michigan for a No. 4 seed.

We'll see how much that changes in the coming days, but if the Wolverines keep playing as well as they did against the Spartans on Sunday, it should just be a matter of time before they find themselves on the top line of many brackets.

Not bad for a team that has had to adjust to playing without Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mitch McGary.

If he isn't already firmly entrenched in the discussion, it's time to start talking about John Beilein for coach of the year.


Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.