March is just a month away, which means one thing: the hunt for a Big Ten title is on.
On Wednesday night, Michigan welcomes Indiana to Crisler Center to open its final nine-game stretch of the regular season. And with a logjam atop the conference standings — the top four teams being separated by just one game — nearly every matchup has significant postseason implications.
Though the 20th-ranked Hoosiers (5-5 Big Ten, 17-5 overall) will bring a poised offensive attack to Ann Arbor, Michigan coach John Beilein is happy to return to Ann Arbor following a grueling three-game road stint. His squad fell at Arkansas in a nonconference heartbreaker, won on the road for the first time this season at Purdue and got flattened at Ohio State.
Crisler has been kind to No. 23 Michigan (6-3, 16-6), as the Wolverines are 12-0 at home so far this season. Beilein has repeatedly stressed the importance of protecting home court, and the coaching staff has worked hard to instill a resilient attitude in its players following the recent road losses.
“I was very happy (with) how receptive we were yesterday to a very instructive film session and just talk about where we are right now and what we could do best to improve,” Beilein said on Tuesday. “We’re coaching their brains a lot … about what it takes to be winners.
“There’s a lot of courage involved, and a lot of toughness involved, and there’s a lot of intelligence involved in it. And if they put that all together, how could they be anything but resilient?”
But predicting a convincing bounce-back performance for Wednesday night is difficult, as nobody seems to have a tight grasp on what Indiana coach Tom Crean’s Hoosiers are capable of.
Indiana has a pair of marquee wins under its belt, toppling potential NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds Kentucky and Ohio State earlier this season. But the Hoosiers haven’t done much outside the cozy confines of Bloomington’s Assembly Hall, notching just one conference road win against bottom-dweller Penn State.
Beilein’s squad, which has only won one conference road game itself, has tremendous respect for the Hoosier offense, which tallied a season-high 103 points on Sunday against Iowa.
“You think we have some guys who could shoot at times — those guys can shoot from the locker room,” Beilein said. “And you have to be with them when they walk out of the locker room. (Senior forward Matt) Roth is incredible. I think he could shoot from half court as well as some guys can shoot from the line.”
Indeed, in the Wolverines’ 73-71 loss at Assembly Hall on Jan. 5, the Hoosiers were an efficient 7-for-11 from behind the arc. As a team, they currently lead the Big Ten in 3-point shooting at a 44-percent clip.
Led by the sharp-shooting Christian Watford, who lit up Michigan for a game-high 25 points on Jan. 5, Indiana tends to be very wise about its shot selection. The Hoosiers rank just eighth in the league in 3-point attempts (the Wolverines are first in that category by a long shot).
To help defend the perimeter, Beilein will deploy senior guard and co-captain Stu Douglass in the starting lineup in place of sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz — a lineup he’s gone with for the last four games. Douglass is considered the best perimeter defender Michigan’s roster has to offer.
“I like the defense that we can come out with,” Beilein said. “I like how the matchups, we can turn them in our favor. I think we got off to pretty good starts in all the situations that we started this (lineup), except Arkansas.”
On Jan. 5, Michigan did not get off to a great start with Smotrycz in the starting five, and the team wound up fighting from behind for the entire first half and some of the second as well.
“That was bad,” Beilein said. “We got off to a bad start, and we just had trouble. Watford is just having a fantastic year … and you’ve got to get to them in a hurry.”
Douglass and senior cohort and co-captain Zack Novak — who both call the Hoosier State home — will look to lock down the shooters and secure a win against Indiana in their last regular-season opportunity to do so.
And they’ll likely need help underneath from redshirt sophomore center Jordan Morgan, who will be tasked with slowing down freshman sensation Cody Zeller. The 6-foot-11 force has found a groove as of late, erupting for 26 points including seven dunks against Iowa on Sunday.
Morgan will need to avoid the foul trouble he ran into at Ohio State over the weekend in order to maximize his minutes, as the Wolverine frontcourt continues to struggle with its depth in the absence of sophomore forward Jon Horford (out with a foot injury since mid-December).
Beilein revealed Tuesday there still has not been a final decision on whether or not he will burn Horford’s redshirt before season’s end. But for now, as Michigan hits the stretch, it appears that Morgan will have to control the paint with little help.