While watching the beginning of the Michigan basketball
team’s practice last Monday, I was talking with two other
reporters who also cover the team. We all had one question in mind
about Michigan’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament: Will
the team allow reporters to come to Crisler Arena for the
Tournament’s selection show on Sunday, March 14?

Beth Dykstra

With its loss to Iowa on Saturday, it looks like the answer to
our question won’t matter. After suffering two straight
losses on the road, the Michigan basketball team can probably kiss
its hopes of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament goodbye
— making the selection show on Sunday worthless for Michigan
fans, just as it has been for the past couple of years.

But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to play
for this season — which is why Michigan needs to refocus.

At 12-9 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten, virtually the only way
Michigan could finish with a good enough record to earn an at-large
bid would be to run the table over its last six games. The second
half of the Wolverines’ conference schedule isn’t as
intimidating as the first half. But with home games against
Michigan State and Wisconsin, and road games at Indiana and
Northwestern, it’s almost a guarantee that Michigan will drop
at least one of its last six.

The only other way for the Wolverines to play their way into
March Madness is to earn an automatic bid by winning the Big Ten
Tournament — a tournament where every Big Ten team will
compete.

This is Michigan’s best chance at this point, with almost
a month for the team to get its act together. And historically, the
first-place Big Ten team has struggled in the tournament, and a
lower-seed comes away with the automatic bid. A team like Michigan
— loaded with potential firepower — could get hot and
surprise some teams in Indianapolis. Back in 2001, sixth-seeded
Iowa took home an automatic bid after winning four straight in the
conference tournament.

So at 4-6 in the Big Ten, where does Michigan go from here?

First, it has to redefine its goals for the season.

Ever since Michigan won its appeal over the postseason ban with
the NCAA in September, the team has spoken about reaching the NCAA
Tournament as a goal. While it’s technically not out of reach
at this point, it’s unlikely, unless they can go on a run at
the Big Ten Tournament. In order to do that, Michigan needs to look
at some interim things to accomplish along the way.

Here’s a few suggestions:

1) Stop the bleeding.

Michigan’s loss on Saturday was its second-straight loss
and its sixth in nine games. Of the three games it has won over
that stretch, none of those wins came against great teams.

The Wolverines knocked off Penn State on the road. The game was
noteworthy because it was Michigan’s only road win since Big
Ten play began, but at the same time, Penn State’s program
right now would lose to most MAC teams.

Michigan also knocked off a Purdue team playing without Kenneth
Lowe, its star. While Courtney Sims’s buzzer-beating tip made
everyone celebrate after the game, it also erased the memory of
Michigan blowing a 16-point lead — something which Michigan
shouldn’t have forgotten about so easily.

With its next game coming against Penn State on Wednesday, a win
— any win — would help Michigan erase the memory of two
straight ‘L’s on the road.

2) Get smarter.

Michigan has been about as consistent as Bobby Knight’s
mood this season.

During conference play, Michigan has struggled with playing
entire games from start to finish. The Wolverines have a knack for
going on scoreless droughts or field-goal droughts of six or more
minutes each game, which has consistently hurt them.

The team’s poor decision making in the face of adversity
has led to these runs. Instead of keeping their cool when they sees
an opponent make a run, the Wolverines get erratic, forcing up bad
shots quickly when they should, instead, take time to work the ball
for a quality shot.

By focusing on playing smarter basketball and taking better
shots, Michigan can thwart an opponent’s run before it gets
out of hand — something it will need to do as it heads down
the stretch.

3) Win another a road game (or two)

The Wolverines are young — 12 of the 15 players on the
team are freshmen or sophomores — so every game they play has
a long-term implication. After its four-game home stand at Crisler,
Michigan will hit the road to close out the Big Ten season against
Indiana and Northwestern.

Those 12 freshmen and sophomores will play at least 20 more road
games together over the next two years. Winning one or two to end
their Big Ten season this year could give them a boost heading into
the conference tournament and could even have long-term
implications.

If Michigan is looking for inspiration in making a Big Ten
Tournament run, it can look back to 1998, when the Wolverines won
the tournament as a No. 4 seed.

Reaching the NCAA Tournament this season has become a longshot.
But the team’s success of 1998 should encourage Michigan not
to abandon all structure and to keep playing for something. By
making several adjustments to play better basketball, Michigan
could help put itself back on track. The Wolverines would be ready
to go when the Big Ten Tournament comes around.

Because if Michigan doesn’t make some changes, this season
threatens to go down in the books as a failure.

Daniel Bremmer can be reached at bremmerd@umich.edu.

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