For Wolverines, Big Ten Tournament picture shifts into focus

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By Lev Facher, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 24, 2014

The Michigan women’s basketball team has had its ups and downs this season, having defeated ranked opponents on the road and having lost to teams in the bottom half of the Big Ten standings by double digits. But ultimately, the extremes seem to have evened out, as the Wolverines will likely enter next week’s Big Ten Tournament squarely in the middle of the pack seeding-wise.

With that much established, this week presents a chance to examine where Michigan will enter the tournament.

The Wolverines do have one remaining Big Ten game — they travel to State College on Saturday to face first-place Penn State — the game likely won’t have a significant bearing on either team’s positioning in the tournament. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s victory over Penn State on Monday night means the Cornhuskers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Nittany Lions. That puts them in the Big Ten driver’s seat, making them a shoe-in to enter the tournament as the league’s top seed.

Minnesota’s loss to Michigan State on Monday night means Michigan has a shaky hold on sixth place in the Big Ten, even though both could finish 8-8 in conference play. With only one game remaining, the Wolverines can’t pass fifth-place Iowa, whose record stands at 9-5.

Michigan lost to Minnesota in the schools’ lone regular-season contest, giving the Golden Gophers the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage. Minnesota would have to win two consecutive home games, against Indiana and Ohio State, to reach .500 in conference play and pass the Wolverines.

Michigan’s most likely first-round opponent is Northwestern, though Ohio State and Wisconsin remain slim possibilities.

If the Wolverines face the Wildcats or Badgers, they’ll have the season’s track record in their favor. Wisconsin is one of just two schools Michigan has beaten twice this season, having played home-and-home series against five Big Ten opponents in total. The Wolverines beat Northwestern, 70-68, in Evanston on Feb. 6 in the season’s lone meeting between the two teams.

Should the Wolverines advance to the second round, trouble awaits them regardless of their seed. The No. 6 seed matches up against the No. 3 seed, and Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan State remain the Big Ten frontrunners. The Wolverines are 0-3 against that group, and would be 0-4 with a loss to the Nittany Lions on Saturday.

Entering the tournament as a No. 6 seed means that Michigan’s first tournament game will tip off at roughly 9 p.m. Eastern on Big Ten Network. The No. 7 seed tips off in the early game that evening, facing the No. 10 seed at 6:30 p.m.

Inconvenient travel itineraries have plagued the Wolverines throughout the season, but the tables will be turned in Indianapolis. Michigan plays just one game in the 10 days leading up to the Big Ten Tournament, and the Wolverines are one of the only Big Ten teams with the luxury of playing in the tournament over spring break.

The breather is a refreshing change of pace from a schedule that forced Michigan to play four games in 10 days, more than any other team in the conference, but the advantage doesn’t do much — things aren’t much worse for either prospective first-round opponent, as Northwestern plays just twice in that stretch, and Wisconsin plays only once.