With the 2015-16 season around the corner, the Michigan opponents for the season are starting to take shape. Sure, we knew who the opponents were a few weeks ago, but with the actual beginning of college basketball a week away, we finally get a glimpse to see the make-up of these rosters and how many of these opponents are actually formidable. Given last year's abysmal non-conference slate and slew of injuries, it's clear no game should be chalked up as a win or loss until the final whistle blows. With that, let's break down Michigan's 2015-16 Big Ten schedule.
December and January
Given that Michigan only plays one Big Ten game in December, I figured it would be easier to group these two months together. Michigan's first test is at Illinois, a bizarre Wednesday afternoon game in December. The Wolverines will not have to worry about a hostile student crowd given that the students will still be on winter break, and this is an Illinois team that is without Tracy Abrams for the 2015-16 year. Sure, there's still some talent in Champaign, but on paper Michigan is a much better team than Illinois. Three days later, the Wolverines start home conference play against Penn State, an improved team but still not a team looking to challenge for a spot in the upper echelon of the conference yet.
After Penn State, the Wolverines have one of the toughest 3-game stretches in conference play. First, a date to West Lafayette to play resurgent Purdue and their two-headed center tandem of A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, or fourteen feet of fun. Michigan returns home to play top-5 preseason Maryland a few days later, so expect a raucous Crisler Center when Melo Trimble and co. come to town. That Sunday, Michigan makes the treacherous journey to Carver-Hawkeye Arena to play Iowa, a team that will rely heavily on Jarrod Uthoff and Mike Gesell but could be the surprise story in the Big Ten.
Michigan gets a rest from the bluebloods after this, playing at home against Minnesota, away against Nebraska, home against Rutgers and then an "away" game against Penn State at Madison Square Garden. Besides for Nebraska, which has had one of the best home records in the Big Ten the previous few seasons, these are four very winnable games that could propel Michigan to the top of the Big Ten standings at the end of January and setting up an exciting finish to Big Ten play.
February and March
Like December, March only has one scheduled conference game, so I'm grouping these two months together again. The next five consecutive games becomes the "Murder's Row" of the season, where Michigan will prove to themselves and the rest of the country they're one of the top teams or they're fizzle out and settle back to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
First looms Indiana, a team that returns basically everyone and adds Michigan transfer Max Bielfeldt to an already very talented roster. Indiana has given Michigan fits in the past at Crisler, and I don't expect this game to be any easier. Following the Hoosiers, in-state rival Michigan State makes the hour drive from East Lansing to play one of the most highly anticipated games of the season. Michigan's next outing is a mid-week trip to Minneapolis to play the Golden Gophers, a team on the rise undoubtedly, and the atmosphere of The Barn makes this one of college basketball's most hostile and difficult environments.
Purdue completes the home-and-home three days later, followed by rival Ohio State a few days after that. Kudos to ESPN for giving fans the 7:00 and not 9:00 start, prompting students to start lining up around noon if Thad Matta's group are a half decent group this year (I cannot wait for that one). After four days of rest, Michigan completes the home-and-home with Maryland, a Sunday afternoon or evening battle in College Park against one of the best teams in the nation. I see Aubrey Dawkins busting out and hitting 6 or 7 three's just because after one season, these are the types of things Michigan fans know Aubrey Dawkins is capable of. Michigan will probably drop this game, but it will be must-see TV.
Northwestern makes the drive from Evanston a few days later, bringing big man and Michigan killer Alex Olah as well as spectacular sophomore Bryant McIntosh, primed for a big upset. Michigan then goes to the Kohl Center to play Bo Ryan and his backdoor, buzzcutting Wisconsin Badgers. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are one of the best one-two punches in the Big Ten, and don't be surprised if Bo finds some secret weapons from Sheboygan or Oconomowoc off the bench. Finally, Iowa comes to Ann Arbor for the annual "How red can Fran McCaffrey get in two hours" showdown.
After scanning through the eighteen Big Ten games and trying to make sense of it for a fourth straight year, it's hard to say how many games Michigan will win. Reasonable doubt makes me believe that number should be somewhere around the 12 or 13 number, with some absolutely brutal road tests on the schedule along with some cupcakes at home to dazzle the fans. If Michigan can recreate the raucous atmosphere that filled Crisler Center during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, and Michigan can take care of business for some road games, there's no telling what the ceiling is for this year's team. Until then, Michigan fans are hoping Coach Beilein is diagramming X's and O's and getting ready for November 6th.