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The most white-knuckle Big Ten basketball race in years comes down to this — one final day in which left is right and the larger good will have Ohio State fans crying, "Go Blue!"
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For the second straight season, No. 14 OSU and seventh-ranked Michigan enter the final day of the regular season smack in contention for a conference title. Only this time, the roles are flipped and the scenarios are even zanier.
A year ago, UM needed Ohio State to beat Michigan State to ensnare all three teams in a first-place tie — and were captured on video celebrating when Libbey graduate William Buford’s final-second shot made it happen. Now, the Buckeyes’ hopes of a fourth straight Big Ten championship pivot on Michigan.
If Ohio State (22-7, 12-5 Big Ten) beats visiting Illinois at 12:30 p.m. and Michigan (25-5, 12-5) takes down frontrunner Indiana (25-5, 13-4) at 4 in a nationally televised home brush, the rivals will again earn a share of the title. So would the No. 2 Hoosiers, who can clinch the championship outright. And maybe MSU too. The Spartans could force a four-way tie with a home win over Northwestern.
Got it? For Michigan, just win, baby. For Ohio State, beat the Illini, then declare a two-hour rivalry armistice and do as former star Jared Sullinger said on Twitter this week.
“I’m going to be screaming Go Blue,” he wrote. “Lol.”
“It’s really weird,” said Michigan guard Trey Burke, a Columbus native. “You never see those guys in green or Ohio State rooting for us. It was kind of like the situation we were in last year. Not us really rooting for Ohio State but rooting for Michigan State to lose.”
Ohio State, for its part, refuses to look past Illinois (21-10, 8-9). All the title scenarios are moot if the Buckeyes can’t defeat the Illini, which won the teams’ first meeting 74-55.
“I've told them you can't win anything if we don't play well on Sunday,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “You're playing a team that literally destroyed you on Jan. 5. And honestly, there hasn't been a whole lot more conversation than that.”
Still, Matta and Michigan’s John Beilein can appreciate the stakes. It was only two weeks earlier that both programs — ranked in the top five to start the year — appeared to be barreling downhill. A 71-49 loss at Wisconsin dropped OSU to 1-7 against ranked opponents while Michigan’s 75-52 loss at MSU marked its third loss in four games.
Since then, the Buckeyes are 4-0 and playing their best, most balanced, basketball of the season. Their stunning win at IU on Tuesday is what set up all this eleventh-hour commotion.
Michigan answered too, with four wins in its last five games.
So here it is, one final regular-season afternoon with jumbo implications.
Beyond the league title, today will also settle the seeding for next week’s Big Ten tournament. Ohio State and Michigan can both finish as high as second and as low as fifth, per the league’s tiebreaker procedures.
With a win, Ohio State would clinch the second seed and advance its case for a possible No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament — a position that would effectively assure it opens close to home in either Dayton, Lexington, Ky., or Auburn Hills, Mich. Worst-case, OSU could finish fifth with a loss and wins by Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, which plays today at Penn State. The top four teams get first-round byes at the league tournament.
The scenarios are just as boundless for Michigan. That is, if the Wolverines lose — an option their players and coaches were not entertaining.
Here’s what’s certain: If OSU and Michigan both win, they will be Big Ten champions.
Where have we heard that before?
“Really exciting,” Beilein said. “Our team’s excited. ... These games now are make or break.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.