Ask any coach or player right now and they’ll tell you how hard it is to win a road game in the Big Ten.
“With this league, seven years in it, there is no place we go where it’s not raucous, loud and filled-up with passionate fan bases,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said after the Golden Gophers beat Michigan on Jan. 12 in Minneapolis. “We’ve gotta have a great home crowd. I’m very appreciative of every fan that comes to the games. Everywhere we play is a madhouse. That’s why the Big Ten is awesome.”
“I think it’s just the crowd,” freshman guard Cole Bajema said on Tuesday. “Obviously it gets loud when other teams get on a run. When it gets loud, it’s difficult to hear play calls and other types of things. I mean, as the record shows, home court plays a big role so far.”
That might even be an understatement. Six weeks into conference play and road teams are a combined 9-42 in Big Ten matchups. What’s more, no one’s been immune to the road woes — No. 17 Maryland is 1-3, No. 19 Iowa and newly-ranked Rutgers are both 1-2. Just last week, Michigan State was drubbed by 29 points at Purdue. Michigan, meanwhile, is 0-4 away from Crisler Center. Its opponent on Wednesday night, Penn State, despite being 13-5 overall, is 0-3.
Those last two figures underscore the larger point: Back home, the Wolverines need to win their next two games — the first against the Nittany Lions and the second against Illinois on Saturday.
Michigan, which has lost three of its last four, currently sits 11th in the Big Ten standings at 2-4. While it’s only mid-January and it has fourteen opportunities remaining to improve that position, residing amongst the likes of Northwestern and Nebraska — both slated to miss the NCAA Tournament according to Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology projections — is not ideal.
As much as Michigan coach Juwan Howard maintains that his team is focused solely on the next game and that the NCAA Tournament “hasn’t even crossed his mind,” the Wolverines’ standing becomes a lot more precarious if they continue to lose Big Ten games. And, given their struggles on the road thus far, protecting their home court seems like the simplest way to avoid such a situation.
“Right now, we’re focusing on Penn State,” Howard said. “We’re controlling what we can control and that’s coming out and playing with a lot of energy and effort. We know we’re going to have a home crowd here that’s looking forward to seeing some Michigan basketball in Crisler, so our guys are juiced up and excited about this opportunity.”
From a sheer numbers perspective, beating the Nittany Lions and the Fighting Illini would clearly boost the Wolverines’ resumé. 13-6 is better than 11-6, or the other alternatives. 4-4 is better than their current mark of 2-4. Certain things are remarkably intuitive.
Even more important is what back-to-back victories would do for Michigan’s confidence. The recent skid has seemingly shaken the spirit of a team that won the Battle 4 Atlantis just two months ago with relative ease.
“I think (emotion) is something that we need, something that we lost during the course of the season,” freshman forward Franz Wagner said on Friday after a 90-83 loss at Iowa. “… I think that’s part of the game. You’re confident in yourself, you’re trying to win and you’re trying to stand up for your team.”
Added Bajema: “Getting two home games in a row definitely can get our confidence back up again before we go back on the road. It definitely helps.”
A more nuanced approach to dissecting the Wolverines’ losses must include the fact that they’re still without junior forward Isaiah Livers. By now, the effect of his absence due to a groin injury has been well-documented — Michigan sorely misses his on-court presence and scoring. If he were to return soon and lead the Wolverines to a string of victories, the committee would take that into account.
Further, none of Michigan’s losses fall into the category of “a bad loss.” When viewed individually, tasting defeat at Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota and Iowa is somewhat understandable. When considered as part of a pattern, a different story emerges. All that is to say, the Big Ten is deep.
“The beauty of this conference is you’re going to get Quad 1 win opportunities every single week,” Pitino said. “You can look at this conference top to bottom and you can make a case right now, and it is mid-January, you can get 12 teams in (the NCAA Tournament).”
Given the Wolverines’ home-court advantage in the next two contests, victories over Penn State and Illinois would actually fall into the Quadrant 2 bucket. Nonetheless, with the Nittany Lions receiving AP votes and the Illini ranked 21st, they’d be quality wins. Wins they need.
“A lot of home teams are winning and we want to keep that up,” senior center Jon Teske said. “We want to protect home court and play hard, play smart and we’ll see what happens.”
Brennan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ConnrBrennan.