In each of the last five seasons, every team to finish with a winning record in Big Ten play has received an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Michigan men’s basketball team is 10-8 in conference games.
The long-running precedent, however, seems unlikely to save the Wolverines, who have dropped four of their last five games and appear ready to break the trend. After a 71-61 loss to Iowa on Saturday, the expert consensus holds that Michigan would need an improbable run in the Big Ten Tournament — first, a win over Northwestern, then another against top-seeded Indiana — for its résumé to qualify for the Big Dance once again.
“We did get 10 wins,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Saturday. “I think (if) you do research on how many times you get 10 wins in this league…”
Beilein trailed off, knowing he had made his point. By the numbers, the Wolverines have done just enough to put themselves in the conversation. A winning mark in the Big Ten, three wins over opponents in the RPI top 50 and no inexplicable losses make for a reasonably compelling track record, one that gets teams into the field of 68 more often than not.
The eyeball test tells the opposite story. The Wolverines are 3-6 in their last nine games. They let Indiana score 25 unanswered points at Crisler Center on Feb. 2. They left Michigan State’s Bryn Forbes open for eight 3-pointers and 29 points in an equally humbling loss five days later. They had to fight tooth and nail in February to put away a Minnesota team that at the time had yet to record a Big Ten win.
If the numbers aren’t a factor, Michigan isn’t an NCAA Tournament team by any measure. A more analytical approach, Beilein seemed to say, leaves the matter open to interpretation.
“It has a lot to do with what the other teams are doing,” Beilein said. “Who was the competition? We do have 10 wins in a very good league. We do have some wins over top-25 teams, and we’ve played a lot of top-25 teams. I’m sure other people have similar arguments.”
Michigan’s ninth-year coach didn’t sugarcoat the situation, however. The Wolverines had five days off before taking on the Hawkeyes — five days to discuss that they needed a win if they wanted to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
The game’s opening minutes didn’t reflect Michigan’s predicament. It came out flat, quickly falling into a double-digit hole. It finished with 11 turnovers and a stunning 8-for-34 mark from 3-point range — all bad signs for a team that needed a break before the Big Ten Tournament.
“I’m not going to hide it from them and say, ‘Hey, maybe,’ ” Beilein said. “I’ve always felt we had to get more work done during this time. That way, any questions about us will be answered. Who knows what’s gonna happen from here?”
The fall since Michigan’s win over then-No. 18 Purdue on Feb. 13 has been remarkable.
Then, it seemed the Wolverines’ problems were behind them. They had just recorded an all-important third win against an RPI top-50 opponent, seen by many as a litmus test for deserving an NCAA Tournament bid. They sat at 9-4 in the Big Ten, 19-7 overall and seemed like NCAA Tournament shoo-ins. All Michigan had to do was avoid a disastrous 1-4 or 0-5 finish in its final five conference games.
The disastrous finish — once a hypothetical — is now reality, and it has left Michigan with one path to the NCAA Tournament, one that redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson needed only one word to outline on Saturday.