The madness of March is here, and Michigan and Michigan State both have big games today in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan needs to beat Big Ten champion Indiana just to get into the NCAA tournament, while Michigan State is playing for a Big Ten title, and a national title after that.
Last year, the Wolverines looked promising -- until key players went down with injuries. The Wolverines finished ninth in the league, missing the big dance altogether, and didn’t even get an invitation to the junior high prom (also known as the National Invitational Tournament).
But this season, most experts expected them to bounce back and return to your office pool bracket. They started strong with a 17-5 record, but injuries hit them again, and they stumbled their way to an eighth-place finish.
In the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines need to win their first two games to make it back to the NCAAs. Michigan took care of lowly Northwestern Thursday to set up a must-win game today against league champion Indiana, which has already embarrassed Michigan at home.
The odds aren’t good, which has a slice of fans calling for coach John Beilein’s job. True, his team finished the last two seasons in the bottom half of the Big Ten, and will likely miss the NCAA tournament two years in a row. But the fact that even a minority of fans want him fired is stunning.
In 2007, Beilein took over a program that was still reeling from NCAA sanctions, needed new facilities, and hadn’t won a Big Ten title in 21 years. He pushed his team back to the NCAA tournament five of his first seven seasons. And Beilein has done it while running a scrupulously clean program in a cesspool of a sport, one so dirty it makes college football look as innocent as field hockey.
Beilein’s players graduate on time, and conduct themselves with class, just like their coach. For these reasons, Michigan’s new athletic director, Warde Manuel, who hasn’t even taken office yet, is not as short-sighted as some fans. So Beilein will remain at Michigan as long as he likes – as he should.
Up the road in East Lansing, Michigan State has the opposite problem: fans spoiled by too much success. The Spartans finished second in the Big Ten, and are ranked in the top three nationwide. They’re not only playing for the Big Ten tournament title, they’re playing for another NCAA title.
Tom Izzo took over the team in 1995, and promptly missed the NCAA tournament his first two years. But since then, the Spartans have made it to 18 straight NCAA tournaments, including seven Final Fours. That’s as good as it gets, especially when compared to the corrupt programs they face there.
The current Spartan squad is Izzo’s best passing and shooting team – which is saying something. It is also his most unselfish – which is saying more. Led by Bryn Forbes and All-American Denzel Valentine, they’re doing what Izzo’s teams do: Play their best basketball when it matters most.
After the Spartans finished the regular season Sunday, Valentine said, “We’ve got nine more games left.” Meaning Michigan State would make it to the finals of both the Big Ten and the NCAA tournaments.
Mr. Valentine’s math might just be right.