On an already bittersweet night that saw the Michigan men’s basketball team honor its two injured stars, senior guards Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert, the mood at Crisler Center — and the Wolverines’ NCAA tournament hopes — quickly took a turn for the worse.
Sitting squarely on the bubble with 20 wins and 10 conference wins, most bracketology experts labeled Michigan’s contest against No. 16 Iowa on Saturday as a “must-win” for its tournament résumé.
And though the Wolverines fought valiantly down the stretch — including a 10-0 scoring run late in the second half while holding the Hawkeyes to a six-minute scoring drought — Iowa’s timely shooting and Michigan’s defensive struggles ultimately proved too much to overcome. The Wolverines dropped the game, 71-61, and now face the possibility of missing the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff, a national player of the year finalist, had his way with Michigan all night, peppering its defense with long-range jumpers and finishing with a game-high 29 points.
Junior forward Zak Irvin and junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. combined for 25 as part of the Wolverines’ comeback effort — with Irvin scoring six straight points as part of Michigan’s late run — but Irvin also lost a costly turnover with 4:10 remaining, leading to a fast-break layup that snapped the Hawkeyes’ scoring drought.
Walton answered quickly with a jumper, but the Wolverines left guard Peter Jok wide open on the other end of the floor for a 3-pointer and allowed Uthoff to convert an and-1 to suck the life out of the rally.
“We have to be able to control that (run), and we did not,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We took some bad shots. We just had a couple times where we needed to have more poise in that run. I get it — everyone was all jacked up and ready to go, but that’s not the way we need to respond.”
Much like the two teams’ first meeting back on Jan. 17, the game ended up as a classic battle of scoring runs. Iowa nearly ran away with the game early in the first half, with Michigan’s defense having no immediate answer. On one memorable play, Jok successfully carved a path through three Wolverine defenders for an easy layup, and Uthoff made his first three baskets of the game (including two 3-pointers) to help Iowa jump out to a 22-12 lead.
The Wolverines started the game shooting just 2-for-11 from three, but they battled back with an 11-2 run that began when Uthoff left the game for a few minutes midway through the half. Junior forward Mark Donnal ignited the run with a put-back hook shot and later knocked down a wide-open 3-pointer in transition to get Michigan’s shooting going again. After a Walton 3-pointer and a fast-break layup from sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the Wolverines suddenly found themselves within one point, down 24-23 with fewer than seven minutes to go in the half.
The Hawkeyes, though, quickly recovered by turning to their strong outside shooters. Uthoff hit a 3-pointer to silence the run, and after Irvin missed back-to-back free throws with a chance to tie the game, Jok knocked down back-to-back 3s near the end of the half to push the lead back to six heading into the break.
Iowa controlled the early second half as well before Michigan began its second major comeback attempt. But just like the first Wolverine run of the game — and just like the game two months ago in Iowa City — the Hawkeyes snuffed out the rally. Michigan never led after the first minute of play.
“Tip your hat to them, they’re a good team,” Walton said. “They got out in transition and did what they did. We answered as many times as possible, but I guess they had more bullets in the gun than we did tonight.”
The Wolverines now have their backs against the wall with regard to their tournament chances — in order to secure a bid, they may require two wins in next weekend’s Big Ten Tournament. Michigan is locked in as the No. 8 seed, meaning it would have to win its first game and then topple conference champion Indiana to accomplish that feat.
“We’ll play good teams there, and we have another opportunity,” Beilein said. “I’ve always felt that we need to get more work done during this time. That way, any questions about us will be answered. … Let’s see what we do in Indy and see what the (selection) committee thinks.”