After Wednesday’s loss at previously conference winless
Minnesota, Michigan is in the depths of adversity.
Now it has to play a team that has overcome a lot of that.
The Wolverines (4-5 Big Ten, 13-7 overall) travel to Iowa City
this Saturday to face the Hawkeyes in a game Michigan must win to
entertain any chance of an NCAA Tournament bid. While the
Wolverines are in serious trouble of failing to meet its pre-season
expectations, Iowa (5-5, 12-9) has continued to hang tough despite
losing three players.
Things went from mediocre to poor for Iowa in January when the
Hawkeyes were dismantled in the span of just a couple weeks. First,
senior center Jared Reiner had to undergo surgery to repair a
stress fracture in his right foot. Just days later, freshman guard
Mike Henderson was deemed academically ineligible for the remainder
of the semester. When it seemed things could not get any worse,
Iowa’s other senior center, Sean Sonderleiter, left the team
for personal reasons. But coach Steve Alford and the Hawkeyes are
not making any excuses.
“That was not the fault of anybody in the
lockeroom,” Alford said. “Now our numbers are less, so
we are going to have to demand more from one another.”
Looking at Iowa’s recent results, one would never guess
the team had just dropped three players. The Hawkeyes almost came
back from a 15-point deficit Wednesday night at home against
league-leading Wisconsin. But guard Jeff Horner missed a 3-pointer
as time ran out and Iowa lost by two. Last Saturday, they pulled
out a double-overtime victory against Indiana.
Iowa has been able to stay with teams mainly because of Horner
and fellow guard Pierre Pierce. Horner has been firing the ball as
well as anyone in the Big Ten lately, shooting 43 percent from
beyond the arc and 84 percent from the free throw line. Alford said
that the coaching staff always believed that Horner could shoot the
ball, but that he is coming into his own this season because he is
becoming accustomed to dealing with the pressure of having to
“(Horner is) the first one in, he’s the last to
leave,” Alford said. “Nobody has worked harder than he
Pierce currently leads the team with 17 points per game. The
sophomore scored 20 points against Wisconsin, but turned the ball
over twice in the final minutes.
“He just loves to play the game, and those are the type of
guys that you love to coach,” Alford said.
While the Hawkeyes recently made a comeback against a top team,
the Wolverines have given a few up. Michigan has had second-half
struggles in many of its recent road games, and is going to have to
improve upon taking care of the ball, shot selection and ability to
hold on to leads if it’s going to have any chance of making a
run in its final seven games.
Iowa gave Michigan a game in late January when it scored 84
points and shot 59.3 percent from the field, but ended up losing by
six. The Wolverines may not be able to do that again, playing a
team that has been able to fight the challenges it has faced.
Now Michigan has to conquer a challenge of its own. Its season
depends upon it.