The NCAA Tournament doesn’t begin until March 15, but the Michigan men’s basketball team is treating the coming week as a preparation period for what amounts to a first-round game.
The Wolverines slipped closer to the tournament bubble with their 68-57 loss at Wisconsin on Sunday. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently projects that Michigan will be sent to a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio — among the last four teams to receive a bid in the field of 68.
That gives Saturday’s clash with No. 16 Iowa at Crisler Center the feel of a tournament game. The Wolverines are in the Big Dance with a win. Barring an improbable deep run into the Big Ten Tournament the following week, a loss likely leaves them on the outside looking in.
“We’re going to approach it like an NCAA Tournament-type (of game),” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Sunday.
The timing for a full prep week couldn’t be better for the Wolverines, as Michigan returned to Ann Arbor on Sunday night to find an empty campus. The Wolverines’ only week of the Big Ten season without a weekday game coincides with the University’s Spring Break, meaning the players have no classes and few distractions.
“We’re gonna use our time wisely,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. following Sunday’s loss. “We’ve just got one Saturday. We really want to get in, and that’s all there is to it.”
Walton is one of two healthy Michigan players to have actually experienced an NCAA Tournament prep week. Senior guards Spike Albrecht and Caris LeVert went through the process during their freshman and sophomore seasons, and junior forward Mark Donnal spent his freshman season as a redshirt.
Asked Sunday if there was a sense of desperation heading into the regular season’s final week, Walton didn’t shy away from reality.
“How else would you want to treat your final game of the regular season?” he said. “There’s a sense of urgency that’s there, that’s just got to be there for 40 minutes.”
Beilein made clear that he, too, intends to take advantage of every minute in the coming week, outlining a full schedule that he says strikes a balance between not over-working his players and making sure they don’t come out rusty after a week off.
The grind begins Monday, when the Wolverines will spend the day watching film, discussing post-Wisconsin takeaways and hitting the weight room, Beilein said. Then the grind begins.
“Tuesday is gonna be a very light day, and some guys won’t do anything,” Beilein said, reiterating the March Madness-style approach. “The high-minute guys will take the day off. We’ll approach it like we would the NCAA Tournament. Wednesday and Thursday will be high-volume days, and Friday will be ‘break a sweat.’ That’s been our formula (in tournament situations). It has a little bit of that flavor to it.”
The full week off, by all accounts, is a break for the Wolverines. They only have one team to game plan for, while Iowa — already in a full-on nosedive, having lost four of their last five games — hosts Indiana on Tuesday before making the trip east.
Of course, Michigan has to contend with the prospect of falling out of rhythm during an uncharacteristically long off period.
“It’s tough,” Beilein said. “You’re on a rhythm right now — we’ve been playing two games a week for two consecutive months, and now, all of a sudden, you could also come out flat. So we’re trying to make sure we break a good enough sweat, we challenge them in practice. At the same time, don’t over-practice, so that we’re dead against Iowa. It’s a late game, it’s 8:00 Saturday night. We want to be ready.”