April 1, 2013 at 1:22 am

Matt Charboneau

Michigan is now last hope for Big Ten

When the Sweet 16 began on Thursday, the popular topic of discussion around these parts was whether the Big Ten could actually sweep the Final Four.

In fact, it was a popular topic all around college basketball. Could the mighty Big Ten, unanimously believed to be the best conference in the nation — unless your name is Charles Barkley — turn the Final Four into the Big Ten Tournament Part II?

It was possible, after all, considering each region had a Big Ten team still alive and all of them had paths that, while not simple, were certainly doable.

Then Indiana promptly got smoked by Syracuse.

No big deal, right? So what if the Hoosiers were considered the best conference team overall, the idea of sweeping the final weekend was gone, but the Big Ten could still dominate.

Then Michigan State essentially went through the motions in its loss to Duke, chopping the Big Ten teams alive in half.

Yes, the chances of solidifying itself as the best was dwindling for the Big Ten, but Ohio State hit a big 3-pointer to beat Arizona and Michigan pulled off a miraculous comeback to knock off Kansas in regional semifinal games.

The Big Ten could still have comprised half of the Final Four.

Except Ohio State's easy road suddenly got not so easy and the Buckeyes lost to this year's Cinderella, Wichita State, missing their shot to play next week in Atlanta.

That left Michigan, the team that played .500 basketball down the stretch, was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament and was desperately trying to find the same groove it was in when it was ranked the No. 1 team in the nation earlier in the season.

It took all of about three minutes on Sunday afternoon for the Wolverines to essentially bail out the Big Ten in a 79-59 domination of Florida to win the South Regional final and reach its first Final Four since 1993.

The topic of a total meltdown would have to wait for another day. The Big Ten would be represented in Atlanta.

And Michigan did it by finding that missing groove.

Glenn Robinson III, the outstanding freshman who flashed brilliance at times this season, has been outstanding in the NCAA Tournament, entering Sunday's game averaging 16 points. Mitch McGary has emerged as an absolute beast. He scored 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against South Dakota State, had 25 and 14 in the win over Kansas and chipped in 11 points and nine rebounds for good measure against the Gators.

And Nik Stauskas, the sharp-shooting freshman from Canada, merely scored 22 points against Florida, going 6-for-6 from 3-point range and missing just one shot the entire game.

Throw that in with the usual outstanding play from Big Ten Player of the Year Trey Burke, who scored 15 points and handed out seven assists, and you have a Michigan team flying high headed into the Final Four.

Nineteen years after its last appearance, the Wolverines hardly appear to be a flash in the pan.

"The direction of this program has been positive," coach John Beilein said this week. "We're selling out every game. We're getting really good recruiting classes that have come back. Next year is going to be very good. I think we were moving in that direction anyhow. This is a little bit of a spike for us or a catalyst for us, perhaps, for the future."

And a bit of saving grace for the Big Ten.

The Big East and its supporters will likely still have a beef with Syracuse and Louisville heading to the Final Four, as well.

But for the entire season, the Big Ten has been the best.

Thanks to Michigan, it won't have to sit out the Final Four. And now that the Wolverines have gotten away from the rugged conference, they are flying high again, carrying the banner for the Big Ten teams that couldn't get quite as far.

mcharboneau@detnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Mitch McGary collected 11 points and nine rebounds against the Florida Gators. Hes emerged as a force in the NCAA Tournament. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News