Thursday was certainly not the biggest night in conference play this week, but it did provide two games that will help fans set a gauge for this season. Michigan went on the road to face an underrated Minnesota team and Wisconsin went on the road to face a Northwestern team that was struggling to get out of its own way.
Michigan Beats Minnesota 63-60
This was a huge win for the Wolverines. I write for another site about Michigan so I won't go into full detail like I did there (link), but this win was huge for a few reasons. First, any Big Ten win is important. The Wolverines may not be considered serious contenders for the championship at this point, but the conference race is always close and a few wins here or there can keep a team in it for much of the year. Just look at the last few years. There was a three way tie for the title two years ago and we nearly had an even bigger tie last year. The top three may look like they're going to run away with it right now, but don't underestimate how many teams will realistically be in the race as we reach February. Also, Michigan will probably not be slated for a very high seed in March, which will make the Big Ten Tournament relevant for Michigan. Getting better seeding there could be important as well.
Along with Big Ten implications, this was also important because it was Michigan's first true road win of the season which will be huge for RPI down the line. Just a few weeks ago, the Wolverines were in a bad situation. They were well outside the Top 100 in RPI and only had one good win (FSU) on the season. Since that time, they've picked up 3 straight wins including wins over Stanford on a neutral court and Minnesota on the road. The Wolverines are now up to #54 in RPI and should move up even more with three manageable games ahead. Unless this Glenn Robinson III injury turns out to be bigger than most assume or some weird things happen, Michigan looks like they will avoid the bubble and might even get a decent seed if they pull off an upset or two.
For Minnesota, this loss has to be devastating. Not because it came on a late shot (though there was a key miss late), but because this was a game they should have won. These are the type of games that have kept the Gophers from achieving bigger things in the recent past and they absolutely need to come away with some of these wins if they hope to make the NCAA Tournament. The good news is that they still get Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State, and Wisconsin at home this year. They must win several of those games if they hope to make the tournament.
Wisconsin Smashes Northwestern 76-49
Not too much needs to be said about this one. If Wisconsin had went down, it would have been one of the biggest upsets of the season. The Badgers are one of the best teams in the country and Northwestern will very likely be the worst team in the conference. The Wildcats hoped home court advantage would have made a difference, but that didn't make much of an impact at all in this one. For Wisconsin, they have a big showdown with Iowa coming at home this weekend. Not only is this a big game because both teams are playing very well right now, but also because both teams are in serious competition for a Big Ten title. Picking up a win would be big for Wisconsin, who has one of the easiest schedules in the Big Ten this year.
For Northwestern, they have to keep focus through this stretch. They get Michigan on the road this Sunday, which will likely be a loss, then Iowa on the road before getting Illinois at home. If the team just works toward improving, that alone would be a good step forward. The fact is that no wins are going to be easy for Northwestern this season, which makes just getting competitive the first task for the Wildcats.