In a college basketball season played in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, why wouldn’t a controversy exist in regards to a conference championship?
Following its 69-50 victory over Michigan State Thursday evening, Michigan’s players and coaches conducted the classic celebration that goes with earning a regular season championship. Confetti dumped onto the playing floor at Crisler Arena followed not long after the Wolverines coaches and players cut the nets down. With the blowout win over their in-state rival, No. 2 Michigan (19-2, 14-2) had clinched the best winning percentage of the Big Ten Conference and the top seed in the upcoming Big Ten Conference Tournament.
Normally, all of those things would translate into an outright league championship but in a year filled with program’s forced to execute coronavirus pauses, including Michigan itself from Jan. 23 to Feb. 14, the players and coaches at Illinois are putting in a public claim for a co-championship.
With its 73-68 win at No. 7 Ohio State Saturday, No. 4 Illinois (20-6, 16-4) guaranteed they’d have more conference wins than any other league member. Therefore, the Illini’s players feel they should get to add the year ‘2021’ to the banner hung in State Farm Center honoring each of the program’s 17 Big Ten Conference regular season titles.
“I think when it's all said & done, we will be co-champions,” Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosunmu said Saturday. “We believe we're Big Ten champions.”
Dosunmu, a Naismith Trophy semifinalist, finished the regular season with per game averages of 20.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. He is the only player in the NCAA over the last 11 seasons to average at least 20 points, six rebounds and five assists.
When asked about what he thought of Michigan’s celebration two nights earlier in relation to what his team accomplished in Columbus, Ohio, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood didn’t hide his feelings on the matter.
“I know we’ve won 16 games and we’ve played all 20,” Underwood said. “We all knew this would be a unique situation but I know this, nobody’s won more games than us and we played them all.”
Michigan will end its 2020-21 regular season schedule today with a road game at Michigan State (3:30 p.m., CBS) as they look to sweep this rivalry home-and-home in a four-day period. The Wolverines will not be the only Big Ten Conference program to complete less than the originally scheduled 20 league games (Purdue, Indiana, Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska all played 19) but their 17-game slate is the lowest total of all of the 14 league members. It should also be noted Michigan’s women’s basketball program managed to play 18 league games including five contests in the final 12 days of February.
However, the Big Ten Conference athletics directors and Council of President and Chancellors agreed before the beginning of this 2020-2 season to determine the league’s regular season champion by overall winning percentage rightfully assuming the pandemic would cause some programs to play less than the allotted 20 conference games. The regular season crown is the 15th in Michigan history and first since the Wolverines won the 2014 title by three games.
“It’s gratifying to go out here and during what we all have dealt with during this pandemic, very challenging times, to not make excuses and roll up our sleeves and figure it out along the way,” Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said. “We were fortunate enough to win a Big Ten regular season championship and it’s so hard doing that. I remember as a player how difficult it was to do that.”
The 16 league victories for Illinois represents the most ever in the history of the program and Illinois' 29 Big Ten wins over the last two years is the most in consecutive seasons in Illini history (2004-05, 28-4).