It’s March — the magical month when every team entering a conference tournament has at least one conceptual path to the NCAA Tournament, even a national championship, if it can just keep winning.
If the Michigan men’s basketball team is going to reach the NCAA Tournament, however, it needs to create some madness of its own. When the Wolverines tip off their Big Ten Tournament slate against Northwestern in Indianapolis on Thursday, they’ll know a single win likely won’t be enough for a ticket to the Big Dance.
To secure an at-large bid, Michigan would also need to win the next day against top-seeded Indiana, creating an instant catch-22. To beat Northwestern, the Wolverines might need their starters to give everything left in the tank. To beat the Hoosiers, Michigan likely needs its starters to have fresh legs, especially since Indiana will have been off since Sunday.
“You can’t balance it,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “You give it your all every time. No matter who’s off and who’s having to play, guys are tired at this point, either way it goes. To make that excuse would just be a cop-out.”
The circumstances are different this time, but Michigan has won two or more Big Ten Tournament games only once in coach John Beilein’s eight attempts.
To even try for two, though, the Wolverines first need to quiet the Wildcats. Northwestern presents a sizable obstacle in its own right, especially center Alex Olah, who has developed a reputation as a Wolverine killer over the course of his career. In his last three games against Michigan dating back to the 2014-15 season, Olah is averaging 22 points and eight rebounds.
Much of the scoring has come from mid-range jump shots that most Big Ten centers wouldn’t even attempt, and has proved particularly tough to defend for the Wolverines in particular.
“The way we hedge ball screens — he’s been doing a good job taking advantage of that,” said junior forward Mark Donnal. “Most of his shots are coming from jump shots. There’s little coming from inside the paint his last few games. I think we need to adjust (our) help defensively so we can slow him down a little bit.”
Olah scored 19 points in Michigan’s 72-63 win on Feb. 24, in which the Wolverines struggled to recover from an 11-0 deficit early on after missing their first eight field goals. A pair of second-half threes from sophomore guard Aubrey Dawkins, who combined with sophomore guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to score 30 points, put the Wildcats away.
Michigan’s mentality entering this weekend is substantially different from that in its last two trips to the Big Ten Tournament. In 2013-14, the Wolverines finished the regular season and secured in their NCAA Tournament bid, and had relatively little to gain through their conference tournament performance. Last season, Michigan entered knowing it needed to win the tournament with four victories in four days.
This year, the Wolverines’ must-do list is more realistic, though still unlikely. Needing just a pair of wins has Michigan playing with a sense of desperation it hasn’t needed at a Big Ten Tournament for years.
“We hope so,” Beilein said of the no-holds-barred mentality. “We’re trying to just go down there and win it all. If your team’s not very good and you’re down in the bottom half of the league, the chances are that you’re not making it to Saturday night. If your team is really good, they’re probably already in the NCAA Tournament. The real crown has been done.”