Michigan no longer needs help in order to secure at least a share of its second consecutive Big Ten title following Indiana's loss at Minnesota Tuesday night. Head coach John Beilein said his Wolverines already had regained the bounce in their step following a big win over Illinois Sunday - they should be even higher heading into tonight's game at Penn State (6:30, Big Ten Network).
The formula is now simple: beat the Nittany Lions tonight and Michigan State Sunday, win at Purdue and home against Indiana next week and claim a crown. It won't be as easy to do as it is to write out on paper, but the carrot is back in front of them.
"Luckily, a season can be successful in several different areas - the regular season, the postseason tournament and the NCAA," Beilein said last week. "All three areas we work to every day. You can have all three, one of the three - any one usually makes for a successful season."
Michigan has more than a fighting chance for at least one. Vegas, too, had put the Wolverines behind only Indiana as the team with the best odds to win the NCAA Tournament.
None of it will be easy. Of the five teams still in contention for the regular season crown, U-M has as tough a road as anyone, even with two remaining home games. Beating MSU and IU both at home will be a feat, and Michigan fans are fooling themselves if they think Purdue won't give U-M a fight in West Lafayette (when was the last time the Boilermakers didn't? We don't remember, either - and Purdue could be playing for its NCAA Tournament life, especially if it pulls off a win at Iowa tonight).
Michigan State (11-4 Big Ten) faces Michigan on the road before coming home to play Wisconsin and Northwestern. The Badgers (11-4) host Purdue before finishing at MSU and Penn State, Indiana hosts Iowa and Ohio State before traveling to U-M, and the Buckeyes travel to Northwestern and Indiana before finishing at home with Illinois.
One of Michigan's keys will be keeping sophomore point guard Trey Burke (18.9 points, 6.9 assists per game, 3.9 to 1 assist/turnover ratio) fresh. Burke and most of the rest of the Wolverines seemed to run out of gas last year after capturing a share of the Big Ten title. Burke has done his part to stay in shape and keep good hours, Beilein said, and Beilein has tried to rest him five minutes per game.
"In the first half we give him a rest, and in the second half we have that extra timeout," Beilein said. "If you look at the best guards in the country, the best point guards in the country are playing up there. In a perfect world he would be at 35 minutes, but we like having Spike [Albrecht] in there with him now. Spike really understands - especially when we're more of a read-and-react team out there - what we're trying to do.
"We're looking at a lot of different things. If we can get him rest, fine. He'll call for it. I ask him almost every time, 'Trey, how do you feel?' and he says, 'Coach, I'm good. Don't worry, I'm good.' So he'll tell me."
Burke's ability to eliminate mistakes has been one of the reasons for Michigan's great success this year, Beilein said. A more understated one: redshirt junior Jordan Morgan. Morgan proved how valuable he was in Sunday's win over the Illini, scoring only one point but defending well. The offense was in a flow when he was on the court.
"It was amazing how much, with the exception of one or two games, Jordan was a huge part of all those successes," Beilein said after he and his coaches cut clips of positive defensive plays last week. "Those are big things we're looking to get back."
Michigan outscored Illinois 45-20 with Morgan on the floor Sunday.
"It's a hard role to embrace, like an offensive lineman blocking for his quarterback," Beilein said. "I told the team and him yesterday that I've never heard so much buzz about a guy who scored one point. But it is the absolute truth."
They'll need Morgan and every man at his best, physically and mentally, to go 4-0 in the home stretch.
Beilein said U-M wouldn't take the Nittany Lions for granted, even with their 0-14 Big Ten record.
"This is a team that's on a mission," he said. "Many teams are coming in here trying to get in the NCAA tournament, trying to win a conference championship. Penn State has its own goal - winning a game. They do not want to be the one that does not win a league game."
The Atlanta Tipoff Club's Board of Selectors has named Burke one of 30 candidates for the Naismith men's college player of the year. Four finalists will be named in late March, and fan voting will help determine the winner. The award will be presented April 7 at the Final Four in Atlanta.
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