With Wisconsin's 92-78 victory over Indiana on Tuesday night, the Badgers moved to 8-1 in Big Ten play, a full two games better in the loss column than anyone else in the conference. While there is still roughly half of the regular season slate remaining, it appears the rest of the Big Ten is battling for second place.
As Iowa travels to Ann Arbor on Thursday night to take on Michigan, neither can afford to fall any farther behind in the standings. Both the Hawkeyes (13-8, 4-4 in Big Ten play) and Wolverines (13-9, 6-4 in Big Ten play) find themselves lodged in the middle of the conference pack. While Michigan is likely a longshot for March Madness, Iowa is still holding on to hope. A fifth loss in Big Ten competition could all but sink its postseason aspirations.
With a lot on the line in the Crisler Center, let's take a closer look at the matchup.
Game of the Day
Michigan Wolverines vs. Iowa Hawkeyes - 7 p.m. ET (ESPN/WatchESPN)
At this point in the season, Michigan has a great understanding of the term "backed into a corner." Early season losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan have been compounded by injuries, making the going tough for John Beilein's squad. While junior Caris LeVert was lost for the season just a few weeks ago, sophomore Derrick Walton, Jr. has been sidelined for the past two games, and will not return for a while.
"It's been a challenge for us," Beilein said. "But we've got to find a way. We're seeing growth, and that's important. I like to say that we're spreading fertilizer right now with the idea that something's going to grow."
Despite the setbacks, the Wolverines have taken both the Badgers and in-state rival Michigan State to overtime in two of their past three games, showing resiliency and a fighting spirit.
"We've just got to have more and more guys step up," junior Spike Albrecht said. "Guys are going to have to learn different spots in the offense, defense, stuff like that. We're going to have a little bit shorter rotation now. We've really got to make sure we're taking care of ourselves."
Sophomore Zak Irvin (13.5 ppg) is the lone active player averaging double figure scoring for Michigan this season, and a greater offensive burden will fall to him if the team hopes to defend its home court against the Hawkeyes. Players like Albrecht, junior Max Bielfeldt, and freshmen Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman have had big games recently in LeVert and Walton's absence, and will be needed to continue to expand their roles.
On the other side, Iowa enters the game no stranger to struggles itself. The Hawkeyes have dropped three in a row, and four of their last six. Granted, two of those losses came at the hands of Wisconsin, but Fran McCaffery's squad, which once seemed a solid tourney team, is holding on to its postseason hopes by the fingertips. A victory on the road against the Wolverines would be a balm, and could help to build momentum ahead of a stretch in the schedule that will see Iowa play three of its next four at home.
"You lose three in a row, it's not going to be the same as if we won three in a row," McCaffery said after Saturday's loss to Wisconsin. "But I think it's incumbent upon me and my staff to make sure we remain focused and we keep trying to get better, keep believing in each other. You don't want to get too negative, but you don't want to accept defeat, so what we'll do is we'll study it, we'll break it down and hold them accountable and go to work, try to get better.
During the losing streak, the Hawkeyes' frontcourt has struggled to produce on the offensive end. Seniors Aaron White and Gabriel Olaseni and juniors Adam Woodbury and Jarrod Uthoff have combined to average nearly 42 points and 23.5 rebounds per game on the season, making the bigs Iowa's strength. That unit has struggled during the losing streak.
White, who struggled in both matchups with the Badgers and was limited to just seven minutes due to a shoulder injury against Purdue, has averaged just under 9 points per game and 4 rebounds in the last three, well below his 15 and 6.6 per night averages for the season.
Woodbury and Uthoff have also had a rough time, contributing just fractions of their season averages as well. Woodbury has put up just 5.3 points and 3 rebounds per contest, while Uthoff is at 9 points and 3.7 boards. Olaseni, to his credit, has tried to pick up the slack with 7 points and 7.7 boards in that span.
"We have been great at times, we have been really bad at times, we have been mediocre a good portion of the time," McCaffery said on Saturday. "And I think if we can get more consistent defensively, I think it will greatly impact our offensive execution and efficiency."
When the whistle sounds on Thursday night, one of these teams will be getting a much-needed notch in the win column, while the other will be faced with a fifth conference loss. As the Big Ten schedule hits the home stretch, both the Wolverines and the Hawkeyes are looking for momentum they can ride towards the conference tourney, and perhaps beyond.