Can Michigan Bounce Back?
The Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team’s season can be summed up in one word.
Coming off a trip to the elite eight and a Big Ten conference championship, the Wolverines came into the season ranked in the top 25 in the country, despite losing key players Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Mitch McGary to the NBA, as well as veteran big men Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford to graduation and transfer, respectively. For the first few weeks of the season, it looked like that top 25 ranking was justified; it looked like Michigan would withstand its personnel losses, like they could have another incredible season. All the way up until the fourth week of the season, Michigan kept climbing in the rankings, reaching as high as 17th due to big wins over Syracuse and Oregon and just a lone, narrow loss to a great Villanova team.
Then things turned for the worse. Michigan lost in embarrassing fashion to New Jersey Institute of Technology (follow that link if you’ve never heard of it–I hadn’t before they came into Ann Arbor and took down Michigan). A few days later, in a redemption game of sorts, they lost again, embarrassingly, this time to Eastern Michigan. And since these major speed bumps, the road hasn’t gotten any smoother for the Wolverines. With blowout losses at Arizona, Ohio State, and Purdue, along with a lackluster home defeat at the hands of an underwhelming SMU squad, Michigan stands in what is unfamiliar tournament as of late.
They are on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
After four straight March Madness appearance, after a trip to the national championship game and an elite eight in back to back years, after fans had just starting taking NCAA Tournament berths for granted, Michigan is at risk to be sitting at home at the end of March—and yes, that might mean missing out on the NIT too.
The question is, can Michigan bounce back? Can they play their way out of the bubble and into the tournament? The short answer is: maybe. The long answer? It will be almost impossible.
I looked at last year’s March Madness field to see which team from a big-time conference, like the Big Ten or ACC or Pac-12, got into the field with the lowest seed. That team was Iowa, who made it in to the field in the play-in game, as an 11 seed. It’s reasonable to think that if Michigan is going to make the tournament with an at-large bid (meaning they get chosen by the selection committee to be in the field and don’t earn their way in by winning their conference tournament—which, if you’ve watched the Wolverines play this year, seems unlikely) the lowest seed they could get in as would be an 11 seed like Iowa.
Iowa finished last season 20-12, with a 9-9 record in the Big Ten and a loss in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Michigan, currently standing at 10-7 and 3-2 in the conference, with no signature wins and a few signature losses, will have to reach those benchmarks Iowa set to feasibly make the tournament. So, can the Wolverines do it?
If they can sweep Northwestern and Rutgers (definitely possible), they’ll only need two more wins to reach the magic number. Their best bet would be winning two of their remaining home games: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State. The other route would be winning against Illinois or Indiana on the road. Either option is daunting, and at this point in the season, with the way the Wolverines have been looking, winning two of those games seems just about impossible.
What’s even more problematic for the Wolverines is reaching that 20-12 mark that Iowa set. Michigan would need to win 10 more games going forward. Even if they can scrape together a win or two in the Big Ten tournament, I don’t see that happening. The schedule is just too tough, and they’re just not good enough, especially with their recent pile up of injuries, including their best, and most valuable, player, Caris LeVert, recently fracturing his foot—he’ll be out for the remainder of the season. While I’m usually a Michigan sports optimist, at this point Michigan should be happy to finish the season with a .500 record. And that simply won’t be good enough to get into the tournament, even as a lowly 11 seed. It looks like Michigan’s best—maybe only—bet is to get hot (and lucky) at the right time and win the Big Ten tournament.
But I wouldn’t count on that. It looks like March will be filled with more sadness than madness in Ann Arbor this year.
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