Leading 70-66 with under a minute left in the second half, the Michigan Wolverines had a share of the Big Ten title well within their grasp. Everything was going as planned.
Then, just as quickly, everything fell apart. A combination of bad defense, missed free throws and literally a complete late game choke helped Indiana win. When the horn sounded, the Hoosiers were the ones celebrating, and had stolen a 72-71 victory. Apparently, they weren’t in the mood to share their title with anyone.
A week before, the Michigan State Spartans had the same type of misfortune in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines. After battling back courageously, the Spartans collapsed late when Keith Appling was sloppy and had his pocket picked. In a flash, Michigan won thanks to Trey Burke’s layup and Michigan State was left heartbroken and stunned. This was after the Spartans previously lost on their home floor thanks to several similar mistakes against the Hoosiers, as well.
Welcome to March ladies and gentlemen, where if you’re not executing with complete efficiency late in the game, you’re done no matter who you are. Expect the unexpected, even when the result of a contest seems decided. Thank goodness these debacles happened when they did, though. In a major way, both of these unique meltdowns can help the Spartans and Wolverines out in the coming weeks.
I’m a firm believer that only when a team has such bizarre misfortune find them do they truly understand they’re not completely invincible. Now, both of the teams understand that trouble is lurking around every corner if their focus is not completely sharpened. In the next week, Michigan and Michigan State need to practice their late game plans. That means plenty of work on inbounding, ball security, breaking presses and making safe passes.
What about the free throws? Those are an issue, too. Perhaps the biggest one that needs to be discussed in the span of these rocky late game efforts. Never mind Sunday, how many times have we seen a handful of missed shots from the charity stripe come back to haunt team during the NCAA tournament? Basketball history would need to be completely rewritten assuming teams just made more of their foul shots. This year, Michigan is making 70 percent of their free throws and Michigan State 71 percent, leaving each near the middle of the pack. What does Indiana shoot? 74 percent. It might not seem like a big disparity, but it is.
In close games and a close conference race, little things can make the biggest difference. The last few weeks, we’ve all been reminded of that fact, but nobody more vividly than players of both the Spartans and Wolverines. If suddenly you see better efforts down the stretch soon, you can thank the tough Big Ten.
Depending on how many Big Ten teams find their footing in time for tournament play in March, “trial by fire” could become the conference’s new slogan. These lessons aren’t always fun or pretty, but right now, they could be worth learning for the greater good.
Player Of The Week: Derrick Nix, F, Michigan State. 10 points, four rebounds and six assists was a nice way for Nix to conclude his Breslin Center career on Sunday night. It’s been a Spartan career where nothing has come easy. Now, just before another March run gets underway, Nix has to summon the fortitude to will his team to a nice run. Down low, he can be a difference maker as he showed against the Wildcats.
Game Of The Week: Michigan vs. Penn State, Big Ten Tournament. Michigan will get a chance to atone for their loss to Indiana, and another recent loss to Penn State. The match up probably isn’t the most desirable, considering the Wolverines will have to play Thursday and Friday assuming they win, but should be no less entertaining. The Nittany Lions have been playing better lately and will have nothing to lose, so the Wolverines will need to show some major fortitude to avoid getting bounced early.
Stat Of The Week: 8 and 6 the number of points and rebounds Glenn Robinson III had in an earlier road loss against Penn State. During that game, he was outplayed by little known Sasa Borovnjak and Ross Travis on the road. In Chicago, this can’t happen again. Jermaine Marshall and D.J. Newbill are going to score, so the difference will be felt down low. If Robinson is able to play better, Michigan will win. If not, the Wolverines will be in for yet another fight with the surprising Nittany Lions.
Tournament Tracker: Big Ten Tournament, Chicago:
#5 seed Michigan vs. #12 Penn State, Thursday afternoon.
#3 seed Michigan State vs. #6 Iowa or #11 Northwestern, Friday night.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax