Just one month ago, on the doorstep of conference play, Michigan had seemingly fallen into the second tier of the Big Ten. No matter that two of their three losses were to Iowa State and Arizona. Conventional wisdom said that Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa were the class of the conference, with last year's NCAA Tournament runner-up scrambling to find an identity in light of Mitch McGary's season-ending back injury.
So much for conventional wisdom.
The Wolverines are now all alone on top of the Big Ten after going into East Lansing and upending the Spartans, 80-75. Yes, Adreian Payne and Brandon Dawson were out for Michigan State because of injuries, but that should not detract much from Michigan's accomplishment. Few teams in the country can say they own three road wins -- over MSU, Wisconsin and Minnesota -- in a league as good as the Big Ten. Even fewer can boast three victories against teams ranked in the top 10. The Wolverines can do both. That has them back in the group of true Final Four contenders.
As they have done so often since losing McGary, the Wolverines turned to Stauskas on Saturday night. They jumped out to a 15-9 lead about seven minutes in behind eight quick points from the 6-foot-6 sophomore who is likely considered the favorite to win Big Ten Player of the Year at the one-third pole. Tom Izzo switched Gary Harris -- who had a huge night of his own, scoring 27 points -- onto Stauskas at this point, and he held him scoreless the rest of the half. However, it was Stauskas, again, who came up with three clutch threes in the second half, including one that put the Wolverines up 63-60. They would not trail the rest of the way.
Despite being extremely short-handed in this game, the Spartans were in control for most of the game. They led for 24 straight minutes, from the 11-minute mark in the first half until there were seven minutes remaining in the game. With Payne still nursing a foot injury and Dawson sidelined with a broken hand suffered when he punched a table during a film session, Harris took over for the Spartans. He put up his third-straight 20 point game while also keeping Stauskas in check for a large chunk of the night. He scored every which way, knocking down four of his six attempts from behind the arc, and five of 10 shots from two-point range. That makes it all the more puzzling why he didn't get a shot in the midst of what proved to be the game-changing run.
A Keith Appling layup with a shade more than four minutes left in the game put the Spartans up 60-58. Glenn Robinson III drew a foul on the next possession, and hit both free throws to tie the game. Stauskas then hit the aforementioned triple to put the Wolverines back in front. They would score the next five points, capping a 10-0 run on which Harris used just one of Michigan State's six possessions. Michigan's final 14 points came at the free throw line, as they made all but two of their attempts from the stripe in the game's final two minutes to ice the game. Derrick Walton Jr. was particularly impressive, picking up the slack for a quiet Glenn Robinson III by scoring 19 points and making nine of his 10 free throw attempts.
In the larger picture, both of these teams have to feel good about their prospects. The return date in Ann Arbor on February 23 could look much different, as the Spartans will certainly have Payne back, and could have Dawson on the floor, as well. If and when they get healthy, they will be one of the most dangerous teams in the country. Unfortunately for the Spartans, two of their next three conference games, when they still may be without their starting frontcourt, are at Iowa and at Wisconsin.
Michigan, meanwhile, has assuaged all of the worries that cropped up in November and December. They're now 5-3 against teams in the top 50 in RPI, and those three losses are to No. 1 Arizona and on the road against No. 16 Iowa State and No. 18 Duke. With Stauskas, Caris LeVert (17 points against MSU) and Robinson, the Wolverines feature an impressive trio of perimeter scorers, making them potentially the most potent offensive team in arguably the country's best conference.
Colorado's slide, and Arizona State's rise, both continue in Tempe
It seems like ages ago that Colorado was enjoying a basketball renaissance. When Spencer Dinwiddie went down with a torn ACL, there weren’t any doubts that the team that beat Kansas and Oregon was gone. It took a few weeks to realize that the team left behind would likely end up on the bubble.
That’s exactly where the Buffaloes find themselves after taking a 72-51 drubbing at Arizona State on Saturday night. They’ve now lost four of their last five games, including the one at Washington in which Dinwiddie suffered his injury. While neither of the other losses (vs. UCLA, at Arizona) could be considered bad, the fact remains that the Buffs are 3-4 in the Pac-12, 2-4 against the RPI top 50 and without their best player for the rest of the season. That has them on pace to present a bad formula to the selection committee.
Emotions could not be any different in the other locker room in Tempe. The Sun Devils are on the bubble of the bubble. They don’t have any bad losses this year, but before Saturday they didn’t have a win of which they could be proud. In their three games against top-50 RPI teams -- UCLA and Arizona and on a neutral court against Creighton – they lost by an average of 22 points and a low of 15 points. There’s a chance that the win over Colorado will lose value as the season wears on, but it gives them a victory that proves to the selection committee that they can beat NCAA Tournament teams.
With Colorado reeling, Arizona State just might be the fourth-best team in the Pac-12. It’s safe to say that Arizona is in a class by itself, followed by, in some order, UCLA and California. The Sun Devils are the only other Pac-12 team joining the other three in Ken Pomeroy’s top 40, and that’s before taking Saturday into account. Jahii Carson, who had 18 points and six rebounds in the win over Colorado, ranks second in the conference in offensive rating. While the Sun Devils don’t feature an elite offense or defense, they’re respectable in both. They rank 64th in KenPom’s adjusted offense, ahead of teams like Virginia, SMU and Texas, and 41st in adjusted defense, better than Wisconsin, Michigan and UCLA. Four of those six teams look like locks for the big dance, and SMU and Texas both have strong cases, as well. The selection committee doesn’t apportion a certain number of bids to a conference. It’s up to the individual teams to earn their own bids. However, it’s hard to imagine this season’s Pac-12 putting fewer than four teams in the tournament. For now, the Sun Devils look like that fourth team.