Here's what's coming in the aftermath of Indiana's 77-73 loss at Minnesota — the Hoosiers' regular-season-ending game at Michigan will almost certainly determine the Big Ten champ.
But first, take a deep breath.
The Big Ten is too strong, the depth too impressive, for any team to run away with the title, certainly not in this parity-rich era.
IU (24-4) has a 12-3 conference record, which gives it, in essence, a one-game lead over Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. It has three games left — Iowa and Ohio State at home, Michigan on the road.
The Hoosiers will not lose at Assembly Hall. Ain't gonna happen. Not with these stakes. Not with that crowd.
So it will come down to Ann Arbor and the last game.
That's how it should be.
Yes, it all depends on what Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin do in their remaining games, but IU can't count on that. It controls its destiny if it wins out. It still can get a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed.
“The bottom line in lie is you control what happens to you,” associate head coach Steve McClain told radio announcer Don Fischer on Tuesday night's post-game show. “You've done what you wanted to do. We put ourselves in position to control it. We have to get ready to do that.”
So what happened at Minnesota?
Toughness, effort, tenacity and passion. The previously struggling Gophers had all of that, and it showed in rebounding (a 44-30 edge), second-chance points (21-8) and points in the paint (40-22).
IU coach Tom Crean had spent the week off since the Michigan State victory preaching the importance of rebounding at Williams Arena.
The players heard, but didn't deliver.
“When you go on the road,” McClain said, “the offense may not come, but your rebounding and defense have to come.”
Make no mistake. Minnesota (19-9, 7-8) earned this marquee victory to almost certainly clinch a NCAA tourney bid.
Cody Zeller's Big Ten's best big man rep got shredded by Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe, who played as physical as you can without wearing an Ironman suit. He had 21 points, 12 rebounds, a block and a steal in his be-more-man-than-Zeller effort. All Zeller could muster was nine points (on 2-for-9 shooting), five rebounds and four turnovers before fouling out.
The surprising mismatch provides a motivational button coach Tom Crean will push hard the rest of the season.
Bottom line — IU can't win the Big Ten championship, let alone a national title, if Zeller gets muscled into irrelevance, and the opposition rules the paint.
“We knew we were facing a desperate team,” McClain said, “and they played like a desperate team. (Mbakwe) gave them a big lift.”
Crean was right. This was not the Minnesota team that stumbled its way to four losses in five games. The Gophers were aggressive, physical and relentless — right from the start. They blasted ahead 8-2 to ignite a roaring Williams Arena crowd.
The Hoosiers didn't blink. Jordan Hulls blasted them back for a 20-16 lead. He hit shots from different zip codes with a release quicker than a blink to score a team-high 17 points.
Thirteen minutes produced a 27-27 tie. The Hoosiers won the last seven minutes 7-4 for a 34-30 halftime advantage.
Given Minnesota had basically wiped out a 23-point halftime deficit at Assembly Hall last month, that lead wasn't close to reassuring.
But then, it never is on the Big Ten road.
Still, you figured Zeller, Christian Watford and Yogi Ferrell wouldn't duplicate their 0-for-11 first-half shooting.
You figured right.
The problem — Minnesota ruled the paint, and then the game.
So now Indiana gets Iowa (17-10) on Saturday and it can't afford a second upset. It handled the Hawkeyes at Carver Hawkeye Arena. There's no reason why it can't handle them at Assembly Hall.
“We'll face a very good Iowa team,” McClain told Fischer. “We'll get home to our fans and to our building. We need an unbelievable effort out of everybody.”
The margin for error is gone. The opportunity is not.
Up nextTipoff: Iowa at Indiana, 7:30 p.m. Saturday night
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