Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Michigan entered Sunday's game with the chance to win a share of the regular season title. It was there for the taking, but the free throw line proved to be treacherous territory for the Wolverines in the final minute.
It's strange to say this, especially after a team ranked No. 7 in the country with a 25-5 record, but: what a strange ride this has been.
The Wolverines started 16-0, looking nearly invincible along the way. Then the Ohio State game happened, and the Four Game Stretch of Doom knocked the Wolverines further down from their once lofty perch. Even as of late, Michigan had been living on the edge, with a one-point victory at home against Michigan State, a collapse against 12-seed-to-be Penn State and an unnecessarily complicated victory at Purdue on Wednesday.
And yet, despite all of this, Michigan entered Sunday with the opportunity to grab a share of its second straight Big Ten title; fortunately, Michigan got the help it needed. Now, with one game left, the stakes were stripped of all hypotheticals, all hopefully concocted scenarios of conference standings analysis and sarcastic "I guess we have to root for them now, don't we?" jokes.
Of course, the Creighton-Wichita State game went a little long, but no matter: the people were ready. Unburdened of the hypothetical, there was nothing left to do but unleash, to empty out the unmitigated reserves of raw, unencumbered resolve.
Indiana won the tip, and so it began. Jordan Hulls tallied the first points of the game on a trey from the left wing, and Nik Stauskas's attempt at a response clanked off the back iron at the other end.
The pace was electric early on, which clearly wasn't working for Michigan in the opening minutes. Indiana jumped out to a 5-1 lead about two and a half minutes in. Another Hulls three and a Ferrell drive to the rim for two (with Burke off the floor after picking up an offensive foul) extended the lead to 10-3 heading into the first media timeout.
The effort was there, but the shots Michigan was taking were nowhere near going in; the Wolverines, especially Trey Burke, would need to settle down and not play at Indiana's pace if they were going to make this a game.
Tim Hardaway Jr. drove into the middle of the lane and lost the ball, resulting in a transition opportunity with Indiana featuring Victor Oladipo charging down the court with a full head of steam. Luckily, THJ recovered in order to execute a LeBron-esque block from behind. Burke collected and hit Jordan Morgan at the other end for a dunk. On the next possession, Burke once again hit Glenn Robinson III on an alley oop, cutting the lead to 10-7. It appeared that Burke's early trip to the bench was an excellent decision by Beilein.
After a travel call on Zeller, Stauskas buried a three at the other end to to tie it, 10-10. On the ensuing defensive possession, Burke blocked a Hulls shot and Will Sheehey went on to lose the ball out of bounds, already IU's fifth turnover.
Stauskas poured in five more points on a three and a "more than just a shooter" two, extending the lightning fast Michigan run to 12-0. The game was likely to settle down into a more normalized state eventually, but at this point, every single electron in the building was twitching like Nikolai Khabibulin.
Defensively, Michigan could have been doing better on the glass (IU had five offensive rebounds by the 9:35 mark), but Zeller didn't score his first points until the 8:37 mark. On the not so bright side, Burke was 0/3 from the field with one point by the same juncture. But, just like on Wednesday, you know that it's only a matter of time before Burke really gets going. When he does, it is something to see.
Speaking of Mr. Burke, he hit his first field goal of the game, a trey from up top, extended the lead to 27-16 at the 4:57 mark, tying IU's largest deficit of the season. Giving up only 16 points to this Indiana team 15 minutes into the game represents easily the strongest stretch of Michigan defense all season.
However, an Oladipo steal on Burke led to an easy two and a Watford triple on the next possession cut the lead back to six in seemingly an instant. Zeller also started to heat up. With Morgan picking up his second foul (on a somewhat questionable call), IU went right to their big man when Blake McLimans was subbed into the game. As you'd expect, Zeller went right around him for two. Despite a shaky start, Zeller would go into the half with nine points.
The once 11-point lead had almost completely evaporated. Michigan went into the half up just 33-30, with the Hoosiers having rebounded a whopping 42% of their misses in the first frame. Michigan couldn't buy a rebound to save its life, especially on IU free throws, which was especially disconcerting.
Even more disconcerting was the steep dropoff in defensive ability from Morgan to Horford to Biefeldt to McLimans. Michigan was forced to go deep down that bench, and it's no coincidence that Zeller started to find his rhythm as Michigan did this.
Michigan cooled off after attaining that 11-point lead, but a lead at the half against Indiana is still a lead at the half. Twenty minutes separated Michigan from so many things.
Michigan began the second half where they left off, giving up an offensive rebound resulting in an easy Zeller put-back. Hulls's third triple of the day finally gave IU the lead again, 36-35. GRIII answered with a triple of his own, but an incredibly weak foul call on Mitch McGary at the other end on Zeller was his third of the game, one in which he had made little impact on to that point (0 rebounds, 0 points). However, he did draw a makeup charge call shortly thereafter, in addition to a monstrous block of Christian Watford at the rim.
McGary played with fire on that charge, but he eventually got burned checking Zeller a few possessions later, drawing his fourth foul of the game with 15 minutes to go.
Michigan was up 44-38, but found itself down 48-46 just three minutes later. It continued to be a game of vast, sweeping runs, and Michigan was on receiving end of this one. Trey Burke was 2/10 from the floor with seven points. The final 11 minutes, once again, needed to be his time.
As if on cue, he hit a three from up top to regain the lead. With Oladipo matching up on him for much of the game, finding those holes in the middle of the floor proved to be a bit more difficult than usual, and so Burke would have to find success from outside.
Michigan was in a bit of a danger zone as the game entered its final 10 minutes. The Wolverines oscillated between being down by four and down by just a bucket, with an empty offensive possession threatening to put the Wolverines down by a more unmanageable margin. Luckily, Burke and Spike Albrecht brought their shootin' shoes, nailing a pair of threes from opposite corners. Michigan went into the 8-minute tv timeout down 58-57.
The Wolverines clawed back into it, gaining a one-point lead. McGary botched an easy layup but recovered with a hard-workin' put-back on the next trip down.
Burke continued to fill it up, hitting that patented stepback three that has mostly been known for its late game use (and failure) at the 4:22 mark, putting Michigan up 64-62. Given the way the play had gone, it was somewhat unbelievable that Michigan was actually winning this game. I guess it wasn't so unbelievable, as a look at the box score revealed that Burke had once again put up big second half numbers; he tallied 18 points by this point, completing a season-long run of 15+ points in every B1G game.
Michigan entered Burke Mode 100%; however, Burke's teammates were critical parts of Michigan's performance down the stretch at Purdue. The same needed to happen here, especially from guys like Stauskas and THJ.
A ridiculous buzzer-beating layup from Oladipo gave IU the edge again, but Burke answered back with a mid-range jumper featuring a series of mid-air body contortions. 66-66, 2:12 to go; the goal was within sight, within reach.
A huge put-back from JMo on a Burke attempt and a tremendous drive and finish from THJ gave Michigan a four-point lead with 1:03 to go. Plus, they had the ball, after a pressing Zeller was called for traveling.
It was right there. Months of work, peaks and valleys and there. Take it.
All Michigan had to do was make its free throws. GRIII missed 1/2 after being fouled on a breakaway dunk attempt. THJ missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Zeller went to the line at the other end and cut the lead to 71-70 with 29.1 seconds to go. Burke missed the front end of his trip.
Then, Indiana took the lead at the other end. Michigan had 10 seconds to make something happen. Could it end like this?
Trey Burke drove, contorting and probing for that perfect spot on the floor to launch a game-winning floater. He missed, but Jordan Morgan was there, tapping it toward the rim.
The ball thought about going in. It really did. It languished around the rim, rolling slowly, like an iceberg passing through the night. The Rock abandoned this initial disposition, that it would go in, and rolled out.
Everything was there, waiting to be taken. Michigan, despite being out-rebounded like a 16-seed, simply had to hit its free throws, any free throws. GRIII missed, THJ missed, and even Burke, who finished with 20 points, missed.
Not only does Michigan not have a claim to the regular season title, the Wolverines won't get the luxury of a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines take on Penn State Thursday afternoon at the United Center.
Once again, it's hard not to look back at those games at Wisconsin and Penn State and shake your fists at the fundamental nature of college basketball.
There is certainly still a great deal to play for, of course. However, even knowing that the B1G and NCAA tournaments are more important than this doesn't make the whole thing any easier to comprehend.
There is so much more to say, and yet, there really isn't much more to say at all. It's a little strange to think that the 2011-12 team won a share of the title and this team didn't, but, so it goes.
How this season is ultimately remembered will be decided in earnest in the coming weeks. Still, we are left once again, the tv still on after a Michigan game with the local news now running, wondering what happened and if it was real.