For the first time since 1998, the Michigan men’s basketball team will make the NCAA tournament.
Well, that’s according to Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis. The college basketball writer features a weekly column, “Inside College Basketball,” and is a studio analyst during CBS’s NCAA Tournament coverage.
“Right now, they’re on my board,” Davis said during a teleconference Feb. 11 to promote his partnership with Coke Zero. “They’re probably going to be one of my last teams in, certainly. But right now, I have them in.”
Davis was in Indianapolis on Wednesday to participate in a mock selection seminar for the NCAA Tournament. The real Selection Sunday is March 15. Of the 65 spots, 31 are automatic bids awarded to conference tournament champions, while the other 34 are at-large bids.
He pinned upset wins against UCLA and Duke as keys to the Wolverines’ chances of dancing in March.
“They’re going to hang on to that (UCLA) win and the win over Duke at home for all it’s worth,” Davis said. “There are not going to be a lot of teams in that situation that are going to have those quality wins.”
The Blue Devils are No. 6 and the Bruins are No. 11, and the better they play, the stronger Michigan’s wins will look.
“You give me 34 at-large teams that are more worthy,” Davis said. “When you get to those last few spots, you’re really looking at some very flawed résumés.”
But how much stock can you put in two games? Sure, both teams were ranked No. 4 at the time, but they both have one glaring weakness — post presence. Defending the paint has been one of Michigan’s biggest problems all season, and if there were any highly-ranked teams that could fall to the Wolverines, it would be those two. Plus, both games came before conference play, when most teams often hit their stride.
Michigan can point to those two games as reasons to receive a bid, but the Wolverines need to do more.
Ultimately, Michigan’s poor road record might be the reason they’re in the National Invitation Tournament in March. The Wolverines are an impressive 12-3 at home, but just 1-6 on the road with a 2-1 record at neutral sites. Their lone road victory came against lowly Indiana, who is 1-10 in the Big Ten.
If Michigan (5-7 Big Ten, 15-10 overall) doesn’t improve its play on the road, it will find itself outside the tournament bubble. There are two must-win road games left, and the first is this Sunday when the Wolverines take on Northwestern (4-6, 13-8) at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston.
The Wolverines have three more games after Sunday’s to rack up more road wins — Iowa on Feb. 22 (another must-win), Wisconsin on Mar. 1 and Minnesota a week later.
But to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, wins at Northwestern and Iowa won’t cut it. Michigan must win its regular-season finale against the Golden Gophers, the final ranked team the Wolverines face on the road. If they lose, they’ll be left without an impressive road win.
And the work doesn’t end there, as Michigan must put on a strong performance at the Big Ten Tournament. The conference tournament is the last opportunity for bubble teams to make their case for the Big Dance. Last season, No. 10 Illinois, whose only shot at the NCAA Tournament was to win the conference title, made it to the championship game before falling to No. 1 Wisconsin.
Like the Illini, Michigan will have to make a run during the weekend. Michigan would be the No. 8 seed if the tournament started today, meaning it would have to win a game on Thursday to play in the quarterfinals on Friday. Both games are must-win. An early exit will diminish whatever success the Wolverines have over the next three weeks.
The fact that Davis put Michigan in his mock bracket shows he is confident that Michigan will finish strong. But he should be cautious. There’s little reason to believe the Wolverines will make a run in these last six games. They squandered a golden opportunity to impress the Selection Committee when they lost 54-42 to Michigan State on Tuesday, and have lost seven of their last nine games.
But if they can go as far as Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament, then Davis’s prediction may come true.
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