EVANSTON –

Sarah Royce

Michigan coach Tommy Amaker doesn’t like the word “expectations.”

He avoids all questions that mention them.

He says that he doesn’t think about them, and isn’t aware of them.

And, at least in public, he certainly doesn’t measure his team against them.

So it was surprising when, before the season, Amaker didn’t waltz around the question concerning the Big Dance.

“Right off the bat, it’s no secret that the next step for us is making the NCAA Tournament.”

He said it.

Even though Michigan is just two games into the conference season, we’re about to find out whether or not his team will take that step.

As much as Amaker won’t admit it, the Wolverines have done almost exactly what was expected of them so far this year.

They beat every patsy on their schedule, most of them convincingly.

They dropped games to UCLA, Georgetown and North Carolina State, all perennial tournament participants from power conferences, and two of which were preseason Final Four favorites.

They eeked out road wins over Miami and Northwestern (a surprisingly tough place to play).

And they opened their Big Ten season by holding serve at home with a win over Illinois, giving Michigan a 14-3 record to start the season.

This year, two teams have separated themselves from the pack in the Big Ten – Ohio State and Wisconsin. Those teams are clearly superior to the rest of the conference, and will have no trouble garnering high seeds in the Big Dance.

Two teams have shown that they have absolutely no chance. Perennial bottom-feeder Northwestern never really has a shot, and Minnesota started the season 7-9 and has already fired its coach.

That leaves seven teams, including Michigan, with a chance to prove themselves in the upcoming conference season.

How does a team prove itself?

As almost any coach in any power conference will tell you, it needs to win at home and find a way to steal at least a couple games on the road.

That is precisely why the Wolverines’ next three games (at Purdue, home against Penn State and a rematch with Purdue at home) will tell us a lot about where Michigan will finish in the Big Ten. Winning all three of these games would go a long way towards helping the team make the tournament (Amaker’s stated expectation). Winning two of the games is absolutely necessary.

One reason is because of the caliber of these upcoming opponents.

Purdue beat ACC-power Virginia at home and almost toppled current No. 13 Butler on the road, but has dropped a game at Minnesota and suffered a 19-point loss to Indiana State.

Penn State fell just four points short of upsetting then-No. 24 Georgia Tech on the road, but has lost home games to Southeast Louisiana and Stony Brook.

These are inconsistent teams, both of which have the potential to beat or lose to anybody on any night. These are the teams that Michigan must beat at home, and needs to find ways to defeat on the road in order to be considered a contender in the Big Ten.

The other, perhaps more important, reason the Wolverines must win two, if not all, of their upcoming three games is because of the schedule that follows.

After the home game against Purdue, Michigan travels to No. 4 Wisconsin. Three days later, the Wolverines head to Bloomington to face Indiana (where the Wolverines have not won since 1995). After a home game against Iowa, Michigan hits the road again, this time on its way to Columbus to face current-No. 6 Ohio State. That’s at least three games that will be incredibly tough for the Wolverines to win.

If Michigan hopes to present itself to the Tournament committee as a viable selection, it needs to finish at least .500 in the Big Ten.

Two wins over Purdue and one against Penn State (the Wolverines won’t travel to State College this season) would give them five conference wins, and virtually assure that Michigan finishes no worse than .500 in the Big Ten.

Should the Wolverines win just three of their final five home games, they would have eight conference wins, which they finished with last season.

If Michigan can win even one road game (they travel to Minnesota late in the year), that gives them nine conference wins, a mark that should be enough to convince the selection committee that the Wolverines deserve to dance.

If so, then this would be the year that Amaker’s squad fulfills its potential.

And yes, reaches expectations.

– Daniel Bromwich is hoping against hope he is the first Michigan Daily writer in nine years to cover an NCAA Tournament game. He can be reached at dabromwi@umich.edu.

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