After the Michigan Wolverines lost Sunday’s regular season finale in East Lansing, a disappointed Juwan Howard took a seat in front of a computer for his postgame Zoom press conference.
Michigan’s second loss in three games didn’t matter from a standings perspective, as the Wolverines had already clinched the outright Big Ten title 72 hours earlier by virtue of winning percentage. But the defeat brought second-place Illinois to within a game of Michigan in the loss column, and the Illini dominated Tuesday’s head-to-head meeting in Ann Arbor without star guard Ayo Dosunmu.
When Illinois walked off the court after winning in Columbus on Sunday, senior guard Trent Frazier held up a hand-written “Big Ten Champions” sign — a clear jab at Michigan’s outright title. Asked about the Illini’s championship claim, Howard deflected.
“I don’t get into that stuff. You’re not going to get any soundbites from me or bulletin board shit,” Howard said Sunday. “I don’t care about any of that stuff. I just know that we are Big Ten champs. I’m so proud of our guys for working their butts off since June, grinding, all the unknowns, being able to pivot and sacrifice a lot of what their college life is supposed to be like, but still having that season and then to be stars in their own role, it’s amazing.”
Freshman center Hunter Dickinson, on the other hand, provided a candidate for quote of the year when asked about sharing a title with Illinois during a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon.
“If they want to claim they’re Big Ten champs, I guess Iowa can do the same,” Dickinson said. “Wisconsin, might as well put Penn State, Maryland, anyone can be Big Ten champs if they want because this is a COVID year.”
Despite Dickinson’s quote of the year bid, the Illini feel differently. On Tuesday afternoon, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman penned an open letter to the school’s fan base about the Big Ten’s choice to determine a conference champion using winning percentage. Due to a two-week department-wide COVID-related shutdown in January, the Wolverines (14-3) finished three games short of completing their 20-game conference schedule. Illinois, however, played all 20 and finished 16-4.
Whitman’s scathing dissent noted that he’s spent the last several weeks attempting to change the conference’s reliance on winning percentage. But according to Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, Whitman voted in favor of using winning percentage as the deciding factor not once, but twice. One of those occasions reportedly came less than two weeks ago.
As things stand, Michigan would see the Illini again on Sunday in the Big Ten Tournament finals if each team takes care of business on Friday and Saturday.