The Michigan men’s basketball team has been doing its own kind of dance this year.
It seems that for every step the Wolverines take forward, they take another one backward. But as Michigan enters the crucible of its Big Ten schedule, the room for anything but progress is dwindling quickly.
Within the next 21 days, the Wolverines will play both Indiana and Michigan State twice, while also facing off with Ohio State before wrapping up the tough stretch with a rematch against Wisconsin. And the journey through that gauntlet all begins with a matchup against the Hoosiers at Crisler Center on Thursday night.
“We’re definitely in the heart of our (conference) schedule now,” said senior wing Zak Irvin. “We have a great opportunity to be able to put ourselves in a great position in the Big Ten and also to be able to get a NCAA Tournament bid. We’ve got to take these games seriously, especially against an opponent like (Indiana), Michigan State, Ohio State coming up.”
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “… Now when you go into the mid part of the season, I think people know that you can’t keep losing games and expect to be in the hunt at the end of the year in your league or in the NCAA Tournament.”
If there were ever a good time for Michigan to face Indiana, it’s now.
After entering the year as the defending conference champions and favored to compete for another Big Ten title, the Hoosiers have struggled more than expected. To make matters worse, it was announced last Friday that sophomore forward OG Anunoby will be out for the year with a right knee injury.
With Anunoby’s injury, Indiana will be without their fourth-highest scorer and second-highest rebounder when it faces the Wolverines.
Still, center Thomas Bryant is a consistent threat down low for the Hoosiers, averaging a team-high seven rebounds per game with 11.9 points to boot. Bryant has been a major factor in Indiana’s current three-game win streak against Rutgers, Penn State and Michigan State.
Indiana will be a threat on the perimeter as well, as it ranks No. 34 in the nation in three-point field goal percentage, led by guard James Blackmon Jr. who is coming off a show-stopping performance against the Spartans in which he scored 33 points on 11-for-16 shooting.
As Michigan prepares for the Hoosiers, Blackmon will certainly be on its radar.
“We believe that some guys, if you let a guy just get it going, as you know there’s a mindset to that,” Beilein said. “There’s a zone people get in. If they can get into it, I don’t care who’s guarding them. … You try to get him (away) from doing that by not making the mistake of giving him a clean look to get himself going.”
The Wolverines, in their own right, have shown encouraging signs as of late. After being dominated in the post against Illinois on Jan. 11, Michigan showed signs of tremendous progress against Wisconsin and in its rematch against the Fighting Illini.
The Wolverines’ front court duo of sophomore Moritz Wagner and redshirt sophomore DJ Wilson managed to limit Wisconsin forwards Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes’ impact until falling prey to foul trouble.
Then Michigan’s big men built off their performance at the Kohl Center. In the rematch at Crisler Center on Saturday, Fighting Illini center Maverick Morgan and forward Leron Black mustered just 10 points. When the teams originally met, the Illinois duo got the better of the Wolverines, combining for 26 points.
The Wolverines have struggled to string together performances like that since the beginning of the season. And as they prepare to face Indiana, finding consistency could be the difference between a win and a loss.
“This is a long season,” Beilein said. “You just can’t get too up, you can’t get too down. You’ve gotta enjoy the season and enjoy your year, but you’ve gotta attack every game like it’s your last game, because anything can turn a game, and any game can turn a season around. That’s gotta be our mentality and I think it is right now.”