March 11, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan can't rebound from its flaws

Ann Arbor -- Of course it did. Of course the tightest, tautest Big Ten basketball race came down to the final shot, the final rebound, the final roll as the ball circled the rim, hung for a couple seconds, then lipped out.

Michigan had it and lost it, and I'm not sure the crowd at the Crisler Center has finished gasping yet. In an amazing title showdown with emotions roiling, Indiana proved it's the best in the conference, right after Michigan nearly proved otherwise.

For the Wolverines, there can't be many losses more staggering than this, a 72-71 crusher that ended with Jordan Morgan's rebound tap hanging like a golf putt as the final seconds ticked away. Michigan can blame cruel fate if it wishes, but this game was blown before the nasty twist at the end.

Make a free throw. Grab a rebound. It's that simple. In college basketball, the thinnest margins separate the top teams, and it was on graphic display Sunday in a riveting clash that featured 14 lead changes.

"They got the last laugh, and the ball bounced their way," Trey Burke said. "We just didn't get it done at the free-throw line. We still have games left, it's a new season now. We just have to come out and be the team we can be."

This is the team the Wolverines are right now, and to make tournament noise, they have to be tougher around the basket. They rolled to the lip of a second straight shared Big Ten title, despite a major flaw that won't go away.

Yes, they missed three free throws in the final 52 seconds and blew a five-point lead. Pressure is a powerfully palpable thing, and the Wolverines clearly felt it. But far more telling, when the ball is up for grabs, they struggle to get it, and that's why they're headed to the Big Ten tournament as the fifth seed.

Bouncing back

Rebound physically or be forced to rebound mentally. The Hoosiers absolutely dominated on the boards, 53-30, and yet somehow, the Wolverines nearly won it with — sweet, bitter irony — an offensive rebound. Burke's shot caromed off the rim and Morgan was there, but his left-handed tap was a tad hard, and the outcome was much, much harder.

Burke was alternately feisty and frantic, and finished with 20 points. If this was his final game at Crisler — the sophomore is expected to eye the NBA — he was going with a flourish. At times he seemed to get caught up in the unofficial Player of the Year showdown with Indiana's Victor Oladipo, who did a good job defending Burke. Neither shot the ball well and Oladipo finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds.

As devastating losses go, this doesn't have to define the Wolverines. It didn't end their season, and hey, did they really want to hand a title share to the Spartans and Buckeyes? Well, of course they did. Now they open the Big Ten tournament in Chicago on Thursday against Penn State, while the others enjoy a bye.

The Hoosiers also must enjoy some goofy karma, because just as they rallied to win in East Lansing with missed free throws by the Spartans, they completed their torturous trek in Ann Arbor. When Glenn Robinson III headed for a breakaway layup and was fouled hard by Christian Watford, the Crisler crowd was as loud as ever, and the game was ready to be sealed.

Robinson made one of two free throws for a 71-66 lead, but Indiana 7-footer Cody Zeller took care of the rest. He dropped in a rebound basket. He hit two free throws. And he swept in for a layup to make it 72-71 with 13.8 seconds left. Zeller finished with 25 points, but Michigan had its shots. Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. missed one-and-one free-throw attempts in the final minute, and that's how championships are lost.

Falling short

While an emotional Tom Crean celebrated Indiana's first outright title in 20 years, Michigan had to piece together its psyche after its first home loss. For a team that's 25-6, you'd think John Beilein wouldn't have that much confidence-building to do. But this was one bruising affair, and Beilein again fretted about his team's rebounding woes, easily the real difference in the game.

"You get what you earned, and we didn't quite earn this," Beilein said. "There are things we have to do better, and that's on the coach.

"This is gonna make us better somehow, that's the only approach we can have."

It's the only approach that works in March, when one free throw can win it and one rebound can lose it. It was a wild game, and for all the manic plays, the Wolverines didn't commit a single turnover in the second half.

That's something they generally do very well, and will have to do even better.

"You never know what this blessing could be," Burke said. "We could go deep into the Tournament or win the Big Ten tournament. That's how we have to look at it. It hurts a lot, but we have other goals we can still go after."

The Wolverines are talented enough to grab those other goals. First, they have to figure out a way to grab the basketball and hang on as if the season depends on it.

Trey Burke, who missed a clutch free throw in the last minute and a potential winner at the end, walks off the court after the game. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
Trey Burke looked to have a lane to the basket in the closing seconds, but ... (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
Cody Zeller, left, and Indiana are outright champs of the Big Ten, while ... (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
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