The Big Ten regular season is a slog, but two teams have emerged as the clear favorites. Michigan (10-2) and Michigan State (9-2) will duke it out in less than two weeks, with the Spartans traveling to Ann Arbor on Feb. 23. This game could have all the implications, with the rest of the conference settling into a crowded middle class.
The Wolverines have a distinct advantage, with a win in hand and fewer injury concerns than the Spartans. Yes, Mitch McGary is lost for the season. But John Beilein's team has been better since going small, spreading the floor and letting Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert go to work. Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. are emerging as solid scoring options as well. Ken Pomeroy ranks Michigan as the third most efficient offense in the country, trailing only Duke and Creighton.
The key for Michigan will be getting stops. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford are solid on the defensive front, but Michigan State will throw bigs into the paint and dare you to try and box them out. No healthy Wolverine is averaging more than five rebounds per game, and LeVert (4.4 rpg) can't be expected to board over Adreian Payne and Matt Costello.
Payne's return has been huge for Michigan State, but fellow senior Keith Appling has been sitting with a bum wrist and Branden Dawson remains out with a broken hand. The Spartans' pre-season starting five was formidable, but a mishmash of Alex Gauna/Kenny Kaminski/Gavin Schilling may not be enough to overpower Michigan. Leading scorer Gary Harris has to absorb more of a leadership role on the floor, playing more on the ball with point guard Appling out.
Tom Izzo has a knack at coaching his way deep into an NCAA Tournament, and he should get most of his guys back before March Madness starts up. But a Big Ten regular-season title would guarantee a 1-seed and an smoother path to the Sweet Sixteen. If Izzo fails to reach the Final Four, Payne and Appling will be the first four-year starters under the vaunted coach to never reach that point in the Tournament.
Three questions with Maize N Brew's Fouad Egbaria
Does Michigan need to beat Michigan State on Feb. 23 to win the Big Ten?
Well, it would certainly make things a lot easier. Put it this way: if the Badgers manage to upset the Wolverines in the Crisler Center, then yes, that becomes a must-have. But, assuming Michigan takes care of business (a fairly hefty assumption, given how the Badgers have looked their last two games), then the pressure is off a bit. That is, as much as it can be "off" for a Michigan-Michigan State game.
In the end, it probably comes down to schedules. After getting Wisconsin and Michigan State at home, Michigan closes with: Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana. On paper, that should be four wins. Michigan State, however, gets Iowa at home on March 6, then goes to Columbus three days later. If you want, you can even throw in tomorrow's Northwestern game and Sunday's Nebraska game in the "IT'S A TRAP" category, but both of those are at home. If either team is going to lose a post-Feb. 23 game, odds are it's the Spartans. Of course, this Big Ten season has never really been about odds, has it?
Why is Michigan so efficient on offense, even after losing Mitch McGary?
Michigan did go through a mini-slump on offense, during which they looked downright brutal on the road in Bloomington and Iowa City. However, the rest of the way they've been unbelievably efficient sans McGary. Part of it is Derrick Walton, who has improved significantly--long gone are the days when Michigan fans wondered if Spike Albrecht should be the starter. Walton is now creating for himself off the bounce, knocking down open shots like an upperclassman and, most importantly, finding his teammates in good spots. That's something he wasn't really doing earlier this season.
In addition to Walton, Nik Stauskas developed a lethal game with the ball in his hands after being "Just A Shooter" last season. Caris LeVert can seemingly twist and contort himself into the lane against almost any defender. It doesn't always work for him --he makes his share of mistakes-- but he gives Michigan a dangerous late shot clock option.
I don't want to downplay the significance of the McGary loss, but even when he was playing he looked far from 100 percent. The offense never seemed quite right with him in the lineup, except for against you standard non-conference cupcakes. Michigan didn't lose the star of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, to be honest -- they lost a very talented guy who showed flashes but was still very much a guy in recovery.
Can Derrick Walton Jr. maintain his current level of performance into the NCAA Tournament? His performance against Ohio State was crucial to holding off the Buckeyes
As we all know, the Big Dance is a whole different ballgame unto itself. Trying to predict it, or the performance of certain players in it, is a mostly futile venture. Can he do it throughout the rest of the regular season and into the Big Ten tournament? I think so. Walton just finished nearly putting up a triple double in Columbus against one of the top defenses in the country. Yes, Aaron Craft was matched up against Stauskas, but 13 and 10 (plus six assists to one turnover) is impressive any way you look at it.
At this point, his play can't be considered a fluke: he can play ball. No, he's not Trey Burke. But as Michigan fans have been saying since before the season, he doesn't need to be.
Three big games
Northwestern at Michigan State (Thursday): The Spartans need to hold court at home if they have hopes of winning the Big Ten regular-season title. Northwestern has been thorny this season, holding wins over Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. Adreian Payne's return is nice, but Michigan State needs to get fully healthy if another Final Four run is in the works.
Minnesota at Wisconsin (Thursday): The Golden Gophers are trying to build a Tournament resume, which means going at least .500 in the Big Ten. Now 5-6, a good place to start is the Kohl Center Thursday. The Badgers are coming off a huge win over Michigan State, so Minnesota may be in line to snag a hangover win.
Wisconsin at Michigan (Sunday): In the toughest part of its schedule, Wisconsin is thriving. The Badgers could roll into Ann Arbor on a three-game winning streak, a real accomplishment in the toughest conference in the country. Michigan will be out for blood again, having beat Wisconsin, 77-70, at home last month.