By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 11, 2012
In just the second week of November, the Michigan basketball team already has its first must-win game of the season.
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OK, so maybe in the realm of the regular season, Monday and Tuesday nights aren’t actually must-wins, but in order to travel to New York City later this month to play in the NIT Season-Tipoff, formerly the Preseason NIT, the Wolverines must beat IUPUI and then the winner of the Bowling Green-Cleveland State matchup.
The regional-site games this year are the opening two rounds of the Madison Square Garden-based tournament, unlike last year when Crisler Center played host to the “Maui on the Mainland” games, but Michigan was guaranteed a spot in Hawaii regardless of the games’ outcomes.
Monday, the Wolverines (1-0) face-off with the Jaguars following the completion of the Falcons-Vikings game. IUPUI (1-0) returns just two starters from a team that finished 14-18 last year, good for seventh in the Summit League. This year’s team was recently tabbed to finish fifth.
The Jaguars will rely on their backcourt if they hope to keep up with Michigan’s potent offense. Guard Ian Chiles, a second-team all-conference preseason selection and guard John Hart — who transferred from Purdue last year after playing sparse minutes — will need to replace the void left by thee-time All-Summit League guard Alex Young, who averaged more than 20 points per game last year.
Cleveland State (1-0) enters Ann Arbor with perhaps the best chance to knock off Michigan. The Vikings have made postseason appearances in four of the last five seasons, including a 2009 NCAA Tournament upset over fourth-seed Wake Forest. Cleveland State finished 22-11 last year, though it lost four starters from that squad to graduation.
Bowling Green (1-0) returns four starters from a 16-16 team last year, but was picked to finish fifth in the six-team east division of the MAC, making it one of the conference’s weaker programs.
Playing at home, where the Wolverines have won 20 of their last 22 games dating back to the 2010-11 season, Michigan is expected to breeze through both matchups as it did in Friday’s 100-62 win over Slippery Rock. Assuming the fifth-ranked Wolverines make it out of Ann Arbor, they’d be the favorites heading into New York, where Pittsburgh, Virginia and Kansas State are expected to appear.
“We’ve got to go into (the games) with a mindset (that) everybody is ranked number one,” said junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “We’ve got to be on our cues because everybody’s going to give us their best game.”
The games will allow the Wolverine freshmen to get in two final tune-ups before heading into the bright lights of the Big Apple. The lone freshman starter, forward Glenn Robinson III, registered 10 points and eight rebounds in the opener. He has continued to impress the Michigan coaches and his teammates.
“He’s doing everything: defending, getting rebounds, boxing out,” Hardaway said. “He gets in the gym everyday. Me and him are in the gym all the time working on our game, getting in extra reps after practice, before practice and we do a great job of just having fun and just competing against one another.”
Perhaps the biggest storyline to follow is how redshirt sophomore forward Jon Horford responds to increased playing time as he’s worked back into the rotation. Horford scored four points and made his presence known last Friday with a block and a drawn charge in eight minutes — his first game action since Dec. 10. Though Burke said that Horford “looks one step slower than he was before he got hurt,” the forward still gives Michigan one more body in the front court to provide a spark off the bench.
“He brings us energy,” Hardaway said. “We missed him out there.”