ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It began on the last day of December, when Michigan State showed up at Minnesota’s Williams Arena on a six-game winning streak and left with a 13-point loss.
Along the way, Tyler Griffey slipped past Indiana, Ben Brust stunned Michigan and Trey Burke stole the show against Michigan State.
Each week brought new drama, and now, one of the most exhilarating Big Ten races in recent memory will finally end – in a most appropriate way.
Indiana can clinch an outright championship today with a win at Michigan, but if the Wolverines prevail, as many as four teams could share the title.
It will be a fitting conclusion after the Big Ten’s heavyweights went through 2½ months of emotional peaks and valleys to reach this last day.
“Do I reflect on how fortunate I am to coach at this level against these type of players? Yes. It’s an opportunity that every coach would like to have,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I do try to take a moment in the games, and just look up at the top of the stadium and see how it’s packed to the last row.”
The Big Ten had three teams in the AP’s preseason top five. Now there are four in the top 14 – and 14th-ranked Ohio State has a chance to move up after beating No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday night.
Despite that loss, the Hoosiers still lead the league by a game over Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. That means the Spartans and Buckeyes are both in an unusual situation: They need to hope Michigan wins.
“It’s my dream that this program is to the point where every year in the last week ... we still have a mathematical chance to win a championship,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after his team stayed in the race Thursday night with a win over Wisconsin. “What happens, happens. I mean that because we had our chance to do it.”
If it weren’t for Wisconsin’s home loss to Purdue last weekend, an unbelievable five-way tie at the top would be a possibility – but the four teams still in the hunt can also look back on a slip-up or two that could have perhaps been avoided.
Michigan lost to Penn State late last month – it was the first conference win of the season for the Nittany Lions. Indiana let Griffey sneak in for a last-second layup in Illinois’ 74-72 win over the Hoosiers in early February.
Ohio State was blown out by that same Illinois team. Michigan State was in an early hole because of that 76-63 loss at Minnesota.
But all four teams were able to recover. Burke’s steal and dunk in the final minute lifted Michigan over Michigan State. The fearless point guard has carried the Wolverines at times, emerging as one of the front-runners for national player of the year. His main competition may be another Big Ten star — Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.
The race for Big Ten player of the year may be down to those two, but there’s little doubt about who made the shot of the year. Wisconsin trailed Michigan by three on Feb. 9 when Brust sent the game into overtime with a buzzer-beater from near midcourt. The Badgers went on to win.
Wisconsin fell out of the race Thursday, losing 58-43 at Michigan State. Now the Spartans (23-7, 12-5 Big Ten) need to hope Michigan beats Indiana on Sunday.
If that happens, No. 10 Michigan State can tie for the title by beating Northwestern in a game that starts at 6 p.m. local time.
Ohio State (22-7, 12-5) hosts Illinois at 12:30. Indiana and Michigan start at 4.
“I just want to play well on Sunday. That is where our focus is completely,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “We have one more game to play to end the regular season and that is the only thing that is on my mind and hopefully the only thing on our players’ minds.”
The seventh-ranked Wolverines (25-5, 12-5) rallied past Purdue on Wednesday night.
They now carry not only their own title hopes, but those of the rival Buckeyes and Spartans.
“It’s really weird. You never see those guys in green, or Ohio State, root for you,” Burke said. “It was kind of like the situation we were in last year with Michigan State playing Ohio State.”
At this time last season, Michigan was pulling for Ohio State, which beat Michigan State to create a three-way tie for the Big Ten title between the Buckeyes, Spartans and Wolverines.
Ohio State already helped Michigan and Michigan State by beating Indiana on Tuesday. But the Hoosiers (25-5, 13-4) had already clinched at least a share of the championship, so they went ahead and cut down the nets at Assembly Hall afterward.
“We earned that right,” Indiana senior Jordan Hulls said. “Obviously, we didn’t like to lose, but we earned that right to cut down the nets. We would have liked to have won but we couldn’t dwell on that.”
Now Indiana has a chance to celebrate its championship with a victory — or the regular season could end with multiple teams at the top. Either way, the stage is set for a thrilling finish after nobody was able to pull away from the pack.
“It doesn’t totally surprise me because there are so many good teams,” Izzo said. “We were going to beat the daylights out of each other.”
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage, Michael Marot and Rusty Miller contributed to this report.