February 18, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Frantic Big Ten basketball race not for the meek

Ann Arbor -- There's no place to hide, not this season. In Big Ten basketball, reality slaps are delivered weekly, and seldom weakly.

Michigan is scrapping to bounce back, the unsteadiness still evident in a 79-71 slog past Penn State on Sunday. The Wolverines' weaknesses were revealed last week, especially on defense, and therein lies the challenge for Big Ten contenders.

If you have a soft spot, it will be found. Michigan State hammered that nasty lesson, and if you think Tom Izzo had his fellas ready for the Wolverines, imagine the tempest for former assistant Tom Crean and the No. 1 Hoosiers. The conference's next big showdown comes Tuesday night in the Breslin Center, and only in the fearsome Big Ten can championship runs become tests of manhood.

Center Derrick Nix, who recently protested a perceived lack of respect for the Spartans, already has declared it'll be "a bloodbath" against the Hoosiers. The winner takes control of the race and a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, although Indiana would be severely hampered if star Victor Oladipo is slowed (or sidelined) by an ankle injury suffered Saturday. In a game in which bodies will bang, any weakness will be exposed.

That's what the Spartans did to the Wolverines in last week's 75-52 bashing, which left a mark. It kept Michigan State (22-4, 11-2 Big Ten) in a tie atop the Big Ten with Indiana (23-3, 11-2), while Michigan (22-4, 9-4) spent the past five days checking for welts.

Playing with the big kids

In a painful way, the Spartans might have done the Wolverines a favor, showing how much better their inside game must get. Jordan Morgan is still hobbled by a sore ankle, and it's time for him to sit and let the injury heal.

Michigan's trio of Morgan, Mitch McGary and Jon Horford combined for zero points (!) and six rebounds against Penn State, which was 0-12 in the conference but slipped inside way too easily. Only Trey Burke's brilliance — 29 points, 0 turnovers — averted a devastating upset for the Wolverines, who get a week off to rest and reassess.

"It's been a major emphasis for us, just realizing this is big-boy basketball and you're gonna get hit, you're gonna get shoved a little bit and you have to play through it," John Beilein said.

"We pride ourselves on being teachers, but there were some moments the last couple weeks where we just said, 'Enough is enough. We're gonna do this because you won't do that.' You don't want them to lose their confidence, but at the same time, getting tougher is important for us."

You grow up in a hurry in the Big Ten, and yes, the young Wolverines are still in the race. Their schedule gets more manageable, with four of the final six at home, including Michigan State and Indiana.

Michigan State's schedule is about to heat up, with the next four — Indiana, at Ohio State, at Michigan, Wisconsin — a defining stretch. Crean is very familiar with Izzo's style, and I doubt the Hoosiers will be surprised by big-boy basketball.

"It's gonna take everything we've got," Izzo said after Michigan State dispatched Nebraska. "I'm not trying to make it like David and Goliath, because it's not. But Indiana is the No. 1 team in the country."

Trouble at the top

Michigan was No. 1 for a week and didn't handle it very well. Rankings don't mean much, but that solitary number means something — for what it says about a team and how it stirs the opposition.

The Wolverines talked Sunday as if their eyes were now open, and the past few practices were all about one thing.

"It was just defense," said Glenn Robinson III, who rebounded with 21 points. "We said, forget about our offense for a minute and just execute our defense. Our transition offense is the best part of our game, and if we get stops, we can get out and run."

I'm sure the Wolverines won't be sending the Spartans any thank-you notes for the message, but grappling with adversity is how teams get better. That's why Izzo loves brutal non-conference schedules, knowing a lesson is more important than a loss. Michigan was 16-0 before it lost at Ohio State. Then came the crushing overtime loss at Wisconsin and the pounding at Michigan State, which could shake any team's confidence.

Right now, all we know for sure about Michigan and Michigan State is that both are capable of being very good when hitting their strengths. The Wolverines have excellent shooters. The Spartans have a great big-man trio of Nix, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.

The Wolverines might have peaked a bit early, while the Spartans appear to be peaking now. Nix said Michigan State felt overlooked, and there's nothing wrong with carrying that chip. In college basketball's toughest conference, the road from underdog to favorite — and back again — is well-traveled. Losing your way during a long season is inevitable. Finding your way back is the test that defines.



A number of teams, notably Michigan and Michigan State, are vying for position in the Big Ten's upper echelon. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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