By winning Wednesday night’s down-to-the-wire contest at Big Ten bottom feeder Minnesota, the Michigan men’s basketball team avoided a near disaster that would’ve considerably damaged its NCAA Tournament hopes. As a projected No. 9 seed in ESPN.com’s Bracketology, the Wolverines (8-4 Big Ten, 18-7 overall) aren’t on the bubble, necessarily, but it’s difficult to label them as safe.
Michigan has six conference games left until the Big Ten Tournament. Some of the contests are must-wins if the Wolverines want to land a NCAA Tournament berth, but others against top-25 teams can preemptively be marked as big ‘L’s in the record book.
That is, unless Caris LeVert returns and makes an immediate impact. The senior guard has been sidelined with a lower-leg injury for the past 11 games.
The day before the Wolverines took down the Gophers in Williams Arena, Michigan coach John Beilein indicated that LeVert’s practice time was increasing, up to an hour at a time, but it would be LeVert’s decision to play. LeVert ultimately watched from the bench in a game where Michigan could have used his help in combating sluggish second-half drama.
Regardless of if LeVert returns, games will continue to be played. The Daily broke down Michigan’s upcoming schedule and what it needs to do to make it to the Big Dance.
Gotta Have It
Northwestern (4-8, 16-9):
The Wildcats have experienced senior leaders in guard Tre Demps and forward Alex Olah, but they somehow manage to keep losing. The two combine for 25.3 points per game and average 8.6 rebounds, but it’s not enough to overcome any Big Ten powerhouse.
Northwestern had a few close games against Ohio State and took then-No. 7 Maryland to overtime on Jan. 19, but the Wildcats failed to close any of the nail-biters.
This is a must-win game.
Ohio State (7-5, 15-10):
Any rivalry game comes with caveats, and though Michigan should be the favorite in this matchup, the contest will be held in Columbus in front of a fired-up crowd.
The Buckeyes have only one win against teams in the top-100 RPI, with their only impressive victory being a 74-67 defeat of then-No. 4 Kentucky. But the Buckeyes have tripped more often than usual this season and aren’t the powerhouse they were the past two years, so don’t give them too much credit.
Michigan will have to watch out for forward Marc Loving, who’s still averaging 13 points and 5.3 rebounds in a very competitive conference. But the Buckeyes just don’t possess the standout firepower that other teams have.
Wisconsin (7-4, 15-9):
Wisconsin had a tumultuous start to the season. The Badgers lost early games against Western Illinois, Milwaukee and Marquette, and lost longtime coach Bo Ryan suddenly on Dec. 16 when the 68-year-old coach announced his retirement.
Since then, Wisconsin has perked up, collecting wins against then-No. 4 Michigan State and then-No. 19 Indiana in January. The Badgers are riding a six-game winning streak in the conference, an impressive feat for any team, and are led by forward Nigel Hayes, who’s having a strong season, averaging 17.3 points, 5.8 boards and 3.4 assists.
The Wolverines will take on the Badgers in Madison, potentially spelling trouble for Michigan.
Major Brownie Points
No. 18 Purdue (8-4, 20-5):
Michigan already met with Purdue this season, and it wasn’t pretty.
A well-balanced attack guided four different players to score in double-digits that day, led by forward A.J. Hammons, who scored 17 on 7-for-10 shooting. Though sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman proved himself as a valuable guard with a game-leading 25 points, his teammates were virtually rendered useless.
It was an 87-70 clobbering in Mackey Arena. This time, the game will be held in Ann Arbor, but the Boilermakers will still have a steady advantage.
No. 2 Maryland (10-2, 22-3):
The Terrapins have just two conference losses, and the Wolverines dealt one of them. Michigan upset Maryland at home in a 70-67 thriller, with junior forward Zak Irvin scoring 22 points and guard Duncan Robinson adding 17 on 5-for-9 3-point shooting. Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. was a power on the glass, grabbing 10 boards against a team that has three players measuring in at 6-foot-11 or above.
But the Terrapins haven’t lost at home since December 2014, and it’s unlikely the Wolverines will be the ones to put an end to that record. With five players averaging double-digit scoring, it’s hard to imagine Michigan having a chance unless it hits better than 50 percent from beyond the arc.
No. 4 Iowa (10-2, 19-5):
When the Wolverines traveled to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, they knew they’d be fighting an uphill battle. Michigan lost, 82-71, and witnessed forward Jarrod Uthoff’s offensive prowess firsthand.
Uthoff posted 23 points against the Wolverines, and is scoring 18.4 points per game to go along with 6.4 rebounds per game this season. Walton tried to keep Michigan in the game with 16 points of his own, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
The Hawkeyes’ showdown with Michigan will be the Wolverines’ last contest before the Big Ten Tournament and will prove important in conference seeding.
Michigan will beat Northwestern and Ohio State to earn its berth at the NCAA Tournament. All of the other games are losable, but if LeVert returns, the Wolverines will find a way to win in one more of the contests to finish out the conference schedule with 21 victories. A win over Wisconsin is the most likely upset, but any win against the Badgers, Purdue, Maryland or Iowa will be considered an unlikely bonus.
A strong showing that includes two wins in the Big Ten Tournament would help the Wolverines, as well. Right now, if Michigan can continue on track in an admirable conference, it will find a way to March Madness as a 7-10 seed.