Over the last few weeks, the world has been turned upside down for Michigan basketball fans. After coming off one of the best 3 years stretches for any Big Ten team in recent memory, the Wolverines have gotten off to an extremely slow start highlighted by home upsets against Eastern Michigan and NJIT. In fact, it might even be safe to call the start "disastrous," considering that the team is just 8-5 with two bad losses on its resume.
Now, with conference play heating up, fans are beginning to wonder about the ramifications of Michigan's slow start to the season. What will this mean for March? Is there still reason to hope for an NCAA Tournament bid? Are people overrating the significance of these losses?
The first thing to acknowledge is that these are all valid questions. Regardless of what anyone is stating or implying at this point, nobody knows what Michigan's 8-5 start will mean for a potential NCAA Tournament bid or for potential seeding. That doesn't mean it's wrong to speculate or project, but it should at least be pointed out that nobody can say how teams will finish and how the committee will view certain wins or losses a few months down the line.
This leads me to this post. Everybody knows Michigan suffered some bad losses, but for a team with as much recent success as Michigan, it seems odd to count them out this quickly, so it seemed like a good time to take a look at the slate for the Wolverines and take a shot at projecting how it might impact things when conference play wraps up in March. This will give us a better idea of where Michigan might sitting in wins, losses, and the quality of the team's resume. Then we can get an idea of the "damage" that might already be done.
Michigan's Remaining Schedule:
- at Purdue
- at Penn State
- at Ohio State
- at Rutgers
- at Michigan State
- at Indiana
- at Illinois
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- at Maryland
- at Northwestern
In total, that leaves Michigan with a guaranteed 18 games left. They have 17 left in the regular season and will be guaranteed to have at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan actually has more ahead of it than behind it at this point in the season. But what does that mean? What can we really expect from the Wolverines going forward. Let's take a look at some stats from KenPom to help us break down the 17 games that are already scheduled for the Wolverines.
Notable KenPom Stats For Michigan's Remaining Schedule:
- Michigan is projected to finish Big Ten play at 8-10.
- Michigan is favored in 5 remaining Big Ten games.
- Michigan has at least 70% odds to win in 3 remaining games (Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers).
- Michigan has at least 40% odds to win 9 remaining games.
- Michigan has at least 35% odds to win 11 remaining games.
- Michigan has 20% or lower odds to win 4 remaining games.
There are a few things worth taking from these stats. First, Michigan has a tough road ahead. Even if you believe that the team is trending upward and is better than KenPom's projection, it's unlikely that they are that much different than these projections. Essentially, fans can't just expect the Wolverines to outplay their projection by 7 or 8 games. This team very well could be better than its projected 8-10 Big Ten record, but even jumping to 10-8 or 11-7 would be pretty substantial statistically. As such, predictions have to be kept in check. For instance, it's pretty unlikely that you will randomly see this team go 15-3 in conference play like they did last season.
Having said that, there are still a lot of winnable games on the slate. Michigan has 3 games that they should be solid favorites to win in games against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Rutgers at home. The Wolverines are also flat out favorites to win a total of 5 remaining games, which would push Michigan to 6 Big Ten wins on the season. However, it's the fourth stat on the list above that is the important one. Michigan has at least 40% odds to win a remaining 9 games, which would get them to at least 10-8 in the conference. There are also 2 more games where they have at least 35% odds to win. The Wolverines would be underdogs in these games, but look at games against teams like Iowa (50%) and Minnesota (48%) at home. There is no doubt that they have shots to win those games, which is why these numbers are important.
To delve into this a bit deeper, look at Michigan's next three games. The Wolverines get Purdue and Penn State on the road followed by Minnesota at home. As of now, Michigan is projected to go 0-3 in those games. However, they have a 36% chance to beat Purdue, a 36% chance to beat Penn State, and a 48% chance to beat Minnesota. It's pretty unlikely that Michigan can go 3-0 in this stretch considering those odds, but looking at those games and having watched all of these teams, it would not be that crazy to see Michigan go 2-1 in this stretch. Most likely, Michigan goes 1-2 here, but this gives you a sense of the potential of the Wolverines.
Along with this, there are only 4 remaining conference games where Michigan is a major underdog right now. As such, with some improvement and luck, the games are there for the Wolverines to make a run. That does not mean Michigan will make the NCAA Tournament if win some of these games, but it certainly is essential to win these games for the Wolverines to get back into the at-large discussion. To explain why Michigan must win these types of games, let's take a look at last year's Iowa team as a case example.
Last year, Iowa made the NCAA Tournament as part of the "First Four" with an overall record of 20-12. They went 11-2 in non-conference play with wins over Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Xavier during the season. This was a bubble team. If Michigan goes 8-10 in Big Ten play as KenPom projects, they will finish at 15-15 overall with losses to EMU and NJIT in non-conference play. That is a long way back from Iowa's resume last year and the Hawkeyes barely made it in themselves. As such, what would Michigan need to do to make it?
First, they have to win every game they are favored to win. That means no more upsets and beating every bad to solid team at home. At minimum, that gets them to 6-12 in conference play. After that, they have to beat the "weaker" teams on the road. Upcoming games like Penn State and Purdue become must wins. Even a team like Illinois might fall in that category. If they do that, they should at least get to .500 in conference play and have some legs to stand on. This may sound obvious, but teams aren't even in the bubble discussion until they hit certain win totals. Priority #1 has to be getting to that range around 20 wins.
The next part is the bigger challenge. Michigan needs to knock off at least one high end team - likely more - and some good teams at home, especially if they cannot beat all the "weaker" teams at home and on the road. The biggest opportunity will be their home game against Wisconsin, but even beating teams like Iowa and Minnesota at home would be good resume wins. The rivalry games against Michigan State and Ohio State also look like big opportunities at home. Doing this could also set up a favorable game in the Big Ten Tournament as well where Michigan could avoid being a low seed and potentially add an extra win or two to their record.
There is no doubt that this Michigan team has its work cut out for it if it hopes to even be in the NCAA Tournament discussion. However, with a guaranteed 18 games remaining and a good hunk of games that are winnable, things aren't over just yet for the Wolverines. The next three games will be crucial for Michigan and could determine whether this team truly does have a shot at making a run.