The Michigan men’s basketball team (6-9 Big Ten, 13-14 overall) enters its final three games of the 2009-10 campaign resigned to the role of playing spoiler. It’s a bitter pill to swallow — as recent losses to Penn State and Illinois made even a consolation trip to next month’s National Invitation Tournament all but impossible.
But as puzzled as Michigan coach John Beilein has looked trying to explain why this season has fallen short of everyone’s expectations, there will be something for the players to prove — at the very least to themselves — in the next nine days. The Wolverines face three teams, two jockeying for the Big Ten regular-season title, the other trying to lock down an NCAA Tournament berth. Here’s an overview of what lies ahead.
Saturday, Feb. 27, at No. 9 Ohio State
What happened last time: Michigan pulled off a big (at the time) 73-64 victory over then-No. 15 Ohio State, which was without superstar swingman Evan Turner. The Buckeyes’ lack of crunch-time scoring proved to be the difference. Senior DeShawn Sims and junior Manny Harris combined for 22-of-34 from the field and 52 points for the Wolverines, generating high-percentage shots at will.
What’s happened since: The Buckeyes have taken 12 of their past 15 games dating back to that Jan. 3 loss at Crisler — all those games with Turner running the show. The junior has been on fire as of late, even by his standards. Turner has tallied at least 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists in five of his past seven games. Ohio State has played as well as almost any team in the country in the past eight weeks, earning wins at Purdue, versus Wisconsin and most recently at Michigan State.
What’s in Michigan’s favor: Regardless of where both teams are at the moment, the Wolverines at the very least know they can compete with this team. Though Turner’s absence downplayed the significance of the win, there’s a number of positives — to Sims and Harris in particular, for Michigan coach John Beilein can pull from that game tape to instill some confidence in his players as they head to Columbus tomorrow.
What’s not: Ohio State (12-4, 22-7) has catapulted to second in the conference standings. With Purdue (which is in first place) junior Robbie Hummel now out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Buckeyes are in prime position to capture the Big Ten title. Ohio State has lost one home game this season. Michigan is 3-6 in true road contests. That the Buckeyes are playing for a championship — and the Wolverines merely for pride — points toward a happy Value City Arena crowd Saturday.
Tuesday, March 2, versus Minnesota
What happened last time: The Wolverines surprised a lot of people with their 71-63 win at Minnesota on Feb. 11. Sims and Harris again paced the team with 47 points between them. Sims especially shined through on national television, abusing the Golden Gophers’ imposing frontcourt (then the top shot-blocking team in the conference) to go 12-of-18 from the field and haul in four offensive rebounds. Michigan practically threw a giant wet blanket on the Williams Arena floor, deflating the home crowd and throwing a stomach-punch into Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
What’s happened since: The Golden Gophers are just 2-2 since the Wolverines left town, but they’ve clearly woken up. Losses at Northwestern and to third-ranked Purdue — each by a basket — have sandwiched blowout wins at home versus Wisconsin and Indiana. Senior guard Lawrence Westbrook and sophomore center Ralph Sampson III haven’t had simultaneous great games in weeks. That must change if Minnesota’s to make a statement in its final three contests.
What’s in Michigan’s favor: The Wolverines may have caught the Golden Gophers napping two weeks ago, but they still looked like the better team. Although Michigan’s two consecutive home losses won’t bode well for a win next Tuesday, don’t expect Minnesota coach Tubby Smith to cook up any wildly successful gameday adjustments for the rematch. If Westbrook and Sampson III are held relatively in check (14 points combined Feb. 11), Michigan will be in good shape.
What’s not: Should the Golden Gophers (7-8, 16-11) steal a win at Illinois on Saturday, they’ll be riding a tidal wave of momentum into Ann Arbor. Winning its final three games would put Minnesota in sixth place and over .500 in the conference, likely taking them off the NCAA Tournament Bubble. Though the Golden Gophers have been playing “must-win” games for the past couple weeks, every sports cliché applies to them from here on out.
Sunday, March 7, at No. 14 Michigan State
What happened last time: Michigan State junior guard Kalin Lucas hit the game-winning jumper with 3.5 seconds left to give the Spartans a one-point win at Crisler Arena on Jan. 26. Senior Raymar Morgan had a near perfect night, hitting eight of nine shots and grabbing eight rebounds. Michigan State’s perimeter players gave Michigan’s backcourt fits all night, holding the Wolverines to under 33 percent shooting.
What’s happened since: Lucas sprained his ankle two games later, which sent Michigan State on a three-game losing streak that took the Spartans out of contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State (11-4 Big Ten, 21-7) also dropped a seven-point decision to Ohio State on Sunday. Although the trio of Lucas, Morgan and junior Durrell Summers have been shaky in its past five games (the three have combined for just 31 points per game on 43 percent shooting), junior Chris Allen has picked up a lot of slack, averaging 14 points at a 52 percent clip during that same stretch.
What’s in Michigan’s favor: Not much. Harris has never had a great game against the Spartans, and Sims will have his hands full with sophomores Delvon Roe and Draymond Green. What kept Michigan in the Jan. 26 nail-biter were the 18 turnovers forced on the Spartans. The Wolverines’ zone defensive schemes will have to throw some new wrinkles to come close to duplicating that number in East Lansing — and the players will have to sustain that energy without the Maize-and-Blue faithful at their backs.
What’s not: Though No. 14 Michigan State has lost four of its past six, it will face a Hummel-less Purdue this weekend, followed up by dormant Penn State, and then the Wolverines at the Breslin Center next Sunday. Just one game back in the standings, the Spartans will likely be the favorite in all three games. As poorly has Michigan has played in its past two contests, the players haven’t shown signs of tanking, and should welcome the role of spoiling their arch-rival’s title aspirations. But Michigan State should have far too much talent, experience and quality coaching to even entertain that prospect.