In the game that Indiana has to win comes the battle that might end best if nobody won.
Sometimes sharing is a good thing.
Sometimes it's the worst.
Indiana plays at Michigan on Sunday, and a Big Ten championship is at stake. Forget Tuesday's net-cutting absurdity at Assembly Hall. If the Hoosiers want to prove their national title worthiness, if they want to earn the outright Big Ten championship within their grasp, then they have to do what no one has done this season:
Beat Michigan at Crisler Arena.
A national title contender does not end the regular season with three losses in four games no matter how tough the conference. It does not submit on Senior Night and then buckle in its follow-up opportunity. It does not share a championship it can own alone while being satisfied with its first No. 1 seed in the 16 years of the Big Ten tourney.
Both teams have 25-5 overall records and have spent the season in the top 10. Michigan has an unexplainable loss at Penn State, which rivals Kansas' unexplainable loss at TCU as the season's biggest upset of the season. IU has its are-you-kidding-me defeat at Illinois, which it turned into a positive motivator (see wins at Ohio State and Michigan State) before its recent stumble.
The Hoosiers are 13-4 in the Big Ten to Michigan's 12-5. Two other teams are 12-5 and can share the championship with an IU loss -- Ohio State, which hosts Illinois on Sunday; and Michigan State, which hosts Northwestern on Sunday.
But beyond that comes an individual battle just as compelling -- the Big Ten player of the year award. Heck, call it what it is considering the Big Ten is, by far, the nation's best conference -- the national player of the year.
It's mano-a-mano. Indiana's Victor Oladipo against Michigan's Trey Burke.
Yeah, this is the way to end a thriller of a conference season.
Sure, you could make cases for Indiana's Cody Zeller and Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas in the Big Ten. Yes, you can mention Creighton's Doug McDermott, Georgetown's Otto Porter and Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk for national consideration.
But when you add everything up, it's a two-man race -- Oladipo and Burke. While both have had huge regular seasons, Burke summed it up best when he said, “I think it'll just come down to Sunday.”
The bottom line -- the player-of-the-year award should go to the one on the winning team. Statistics are important, but championships are what everyone remembers. It's why the Hoosiers have all those banners hanging in Assembly Hall.
If IU earns an outright championship, Oladipo should get the glory. If Michigan wins to get a share of the title, Burke should be the man.
If you want to go the Solomon route, you could divide the baby, so to speak, and make it a co-MVP.
But Solomon is so 5th century BC -- give or take a century or so.
What do the statistics say?
Oladipo leads the Big Ten in steals (2.3) and shooting (63.1 percent, unheard of for a guard). He's the conference's best rebounding guard, at 6.0, and ranks 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (13.7 points). He averages 49.1 percent in three-point shooting, amazing considering he averaged 20.8 percent last season.
Oladipo has been IU's catalyst all season. He was at his best in the last minute at Michigan State, virtually willing the Hoosiers to victory with his scoring and defense.
The problem -- he and the Hoosiers haven't been the same since.
Burke leads the Big Ten in assists, at 6.9 a game. His 208 assists against 57 turnovers represent the nation's best assist-to-turnover ratio. He ranks second in the conference in scoring, behind Thomas, at 19.1. He has a team-high 48 steals.
He willed his team to victory in the last two games. He had two crunch-time steals and a dunk against Michigan State. He scored 22 second-half points to spark a rally against Purdue.
In the last five games, Burke has averaged 24.0 points. He's scored at least 15 points in every Big Ten game. Nobody else has done that.
Here's what IU coach Tom Crean has said about Burke: “He is a tremendous player. I've had a lot of respect for him for a long time, but you get in the game with him and he just plays. He's outstanding.”
Here's what Michigan coach John Beilein has said about Oladipo: “I've seen a lot of players, and I don't know if I have seen one quicker, faster or more athletic than Oladipo. It's tough to stay in front of him.”
The 6-4 Oladipo will guard the 6-foot Burke for some of the game, although freshman Yogi Ferrell, junior Will Sheehey and, perhaps, senior Christian Watford also will get their shots.
In this most competitive of conferences, it's fitting that everything comes down to the last game of the season. And there's only one fitting end:
Winner take all.