With just two games remaining in the regular season, the Michigan men’s basketball team finds itself in an unfamiliar position.
Last year, the struggling Wolverines were all but eliminated from NCAA Tournament consideration. In the three seasons prior, they were firmly near the top of the Big Ten and playing for a higher tournament seed.
But this year — due in no small part to long-term injuries to senior guards Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht — Michigan (10-6 Big Ten, 20-9 overall) is firmly on the bubble, and one win in the final two games would go a long way toward securing a tourney spot once and for all. The Wolverines’ first crack at locking up a bid comes Sunday at Wisconsin — a team that finds itself in a similar position.
The Badgers (10-5, 18-10) stumbled out of the gate with losses to Western Illinois, Milwaukee and Marquette in nonconference play, and they had to deal with a rare midseason coaching change when Bo Ryan’s abrupt retirement opened the door for current interim coach Greg Gard. But lately, Wisconsin has caught fire and won nine of its last 10 games — including road upsets over No. 8 Iowa and No. 10 Maryland — putting the Badgers in position to burst onto the right side of the tournament bubble.
“Wisconsin is playing the best basketball probably of anyone in this league right now,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They play great defense, they’re really timely with their 3-point shooting, you’ve got to score over strong bodies all the time, their swing offense is very patient. We have our work cut out (for us) like we have every time.”
The Badgers typically have one of the more experienced rosters in the conference, but that is not the case this year. After the graduation of big man Frank Kaminsky and the early NBA departure of Sam Dekker — one of the very few examples of attrition the team has experienced over the last few years — Wisconsin naturally suffered through some initial growing pains.
But the new-look Badgers, led by versatile forward Nigel Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig and boosted by the emergence of forwards Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown, have started to put the pieces together at the perfect time of year.
“They’ve matured as a team,” Beilein said. “They’ve had this stability — that was probably the biggest transitional change they have ever had, from last year to this year. Now they’re playing, they’re playing together, and that’s been the biggest difference.”
Because of LeVert’s injury — which has kept him out of practice the entire week and likely the game Sunday, according to Beilein — the Wolverines have been forced to mature quickly as well. With no seniors getting regular playing time since December, junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. and junior forward Zak Irvin have quickly assumed leadership roles, helping Michigan fight to stay in the tournament picture.
The results have been mostly positive, with the Wolverines scoring upset wins over Maryland and No. 20 Purdue and avoiding what would likely be seen as “bad losses” by the selection committee — their only loss outside the top-50 RPI came on the road against No. 78 Ohio State.
But still, there remains a sense that there is work to be done — so much so that Beilein actually mentioned the tournament ramifications of Michigan’s last matchup with Northwestern in his pregame speech to the team.
Now, with a matchup of two bubble teams on the immediate horizon, that pressure is only getting higher. For Beilein, though, it’s just another day in the life of a Division I basketball coach.
“My stress level never goes down,” Beilein said, smiling. “It’s always up. I mean, seriously. (Even) the Elon games, the games early in the season — that’s the way I live my life. That’s a really unfortunate part of my personality after a thousand games, but that’s who I am. I don’t even notice the difference, actually.”
It may take a lot for Beilein to feel at peace, but beating Wisconsin on the road — something the Wolverines have done only once since 1999 — and all but locking up a tournament spot would certainly be a good start.