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March 6, 2013

Buckeyes could cheer on Wolverines

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For the past two seasons, each time Ohio State has played at Michigan, the Wolverines' public address announcer has proclaimed UM point guard Trey Burke to be the "pride of Columbus." The declaration is meant to be a shot at the Buckeyes, who let the homegrown National Player of the Year candidate slip away to their rival school, but on Sunday, it may actually ring true.

For the fourth consecutive season, the race for the Big Ten championship will come down to the final weekend of the regular season. Still a game back of Indiana for the conference's lead, Ohio State will attempt to take care of Illinois in its season finale on Sunday, and then hope for the Wolverines to knock off the Hoosiers later that day.

That's because the Buckeyes' only chance at winning a fourth consecutive regular season championship rests in the hands of their rivals, who they'll undoubtedly be rooting for in the event that they end up victorious against the Fighting Illini.

"I don't put a ton of stock into what other teams are doing. We've never really worried about that," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "Obviously if it comes to that, we'll be rooting for (Michigan)."

It wouldn't be the first time that a rival rooted for a rival. In fact, it was just last season that the Wolverines found themselves cheering on the Buckeyes to defeat Michigan State on the final day of the regular season, in order to split the league title between the three teams. Ohio State did just that thanks to a William Buford game-winning shot, and as a result, Matta found himself on the receiving end of a "thank you" from Michigan head coach John Beilein.

"Coach Beilein told me before we played in the conference tournament last year, he said, 'I've never seen a group of Michigan guys rooting so (for Ohio State) hard when Buford made the shot,'" Matta said.

Depending on how the rest of this week plays out, the Buckeyes might not be the only team in the Big Ten rooting for the Wolverines.

The winner of Thursday night's matchup between Michigan State and Wisconsin will remain alive in the race for the conference crown until at least Sunday, when the Spartans will face Northwestern and the Badgers win Penn State. Should either MSU or Wisconsin win their two remaining regular season games, a Michigan win over Indiana would give them a share of the Big Ten championship with at least the Hoosiers, who have already clinched at least that.

The Wolverines could also be playing for a share of the title, and control their own destiny in that regard with a 7 p.m. tipoff with Purdue tonight, before Sunday's finale against the Hoosiers. When all is said and done, this season's Big Ten championship could be split as many as four ways this season, or it could simply be won outright by Indiana with a win on Sunday or losses by the Buckeyes, Wolverines, Spartans, and Badgers this week.

With a win against Iowa sandwiched between losses to Minnesota and Ohio State, it's hard to imagine the second-ranked Hoosiers ending the season with three losses in four games, but there's also plenty of reasons to believe in Michigan's chances of icing Indiana. Having spent the majority of the season ranked as one of the nation's top-five teams, the now seventh-ranked Wolverines will likely be favored while playing inside of the friendly confines of Crisler Arena, where they haven't lost all season.

Led by Burke- a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate who is averaging 18.9 points and 6.9 assists per game- Michigan possesses one of the more talented rotations in the country, and features three other players averaging double-digit figures in scoring in Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, and Glenn Robinson III. For at least one day, that could be just fine with the Buckeyes, but they also know that rooting for the Wolverines would all go for naught should they not handle the Fighting Illini first.

"We have to take care of business against Illinois before anything can happen," OSU point guard Aaron Craft said. "We got a big game against an opponent that handled us the first time we played them."

Matta also downplayed the potential irony of his team cheering for its rivals, stating that all of his focus is on beating an Illinois team that dismantled the Buckeyes by 19 points two months ago in Champaign, Ill.

"I just want to take care of Illinois," Matta said. "I don't even know when (Michigan and Indiana) play, to be honest with you."

Should the Buckeyes wind up victorious on Sunday, it's a safe bet that he'll figure that out.



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