February 15, 2013

Borton's Blog: Finish-line flashback?

So Michigan State and Indiana have broken from the pack, established the two-game lead, and left everyone else in the smoldering rubble of … yeah, that's right. Not so fast.

There's no question the Hoosiers and Spartans are in the driver's seat right now at 10-2, to the 8-4 of Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. There's also no question the leaders face the bumpiest ride home.

The Hoosiers still face away games at Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan, along with a home showdown against Ohio State. The Spartans get Indiana and Wisconsin at home, with road trips to Columbus and Ann Arbor.

The Buckeyes face the next-toughest finish, with a potentially lose-able game at Indiana, along with home contests against the Badgers and Spartans. Wisconsin's remaining double-take games involve Ohio State in the Kohl Center and a trip to the Breslin.

Michigan's toughest down the stretch - Michigan State and Indiana at home.

And of course, there's always a chance of a loss outside of the games mentioned, but that would probably wind up as a dream crusher for any of the combatants mentioned. That's why, when Northwestern leads Ohio State with moments remaining, the heat gets turned up. The Buckeyes lose that one, they'd be roasting on an open fire, when it comes to the Big Ten race.

Almost every contender has absorbed a bad loss. Indiana dropped the home game to Wisconsin. The Buckeyes lose at home to the Hoosiers. The Badgers let MSU come onto their home court and get it done.

And Michigan loses at Wisconsin. Okay, wait a minute. Dropping one at the Kohl Center constitutes a BAD loss? Only when you lead by three with a couple of seconds left in regulation, and you fail to foul with fouls to give, and Ben Brust-Your-Bubble winds up for a near-half court shot, and…

Yeah, you get the idea.

The one team without a hint of a clunker on its resume? Michigan State. The Spartans lost at Indiana and dropped another at Minnesota, the closest they've come to an "oops" outing in Big Ten play. Yes, they almost lost at Iowa (62-59), and almost dropped a home game against Ohio State (59-56), and almost didn't pull off the rare win in the Kohl Center (49-47), and even struggled at home against Nebraska before pulling away late.

But teams generally win the Big Ten by almost absorbing a bad loss or two, then avoiding them.

Michigan's jaw-buster at the Breslin shouldn't be taken for anything more than it was - a smack-in-the-face wake-up call, at the end of one miserable gauntlet of very tough road games. Had the Brust Bomb not dropped, the Wolverines would have been playing with house money in East Lansing.

They weren't, but they're far from out of the Big Ten race. They need to mend some broken parts, obviously, and the schedule suddenly allows for it to happen. If they drop another one, they're a much longer shot in the conference.

But there are still plenty of bends left in the Big Ten road, and the Wolverines have already navigated the minefield - just not quite as successfully as they'd have liked.

Last year, their Big Ten title hopes ended with a crushing, 75-61 loss on Senior Night to Purdue … until they didn't. Down the stretch, the Wolverines took care of business, and the Big Ten bullies took care of smacking each other in the face.

Buckle up, because it could happen again.

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