The Michigan Wolverines have had one of the oddest seasons in all of college basketball. Despite losing more talent in the offseason than most teams have, they were expected to reload and finish in the top half of the conference by nearly everyone. Back-to-back stunning home losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan changed that perception quickly. As the conference season progressed things only got worse for this team as do-everything junior Caris LeVert was lost for the season in a January game against Northwestern.
John Beilein's guys showed resilience though. Faced with situation that might have caused another team to fold and finish at the bottom of the conference table, this team fought to an 8-10 conference record that included four overtimes losses. Even after losing Derrick Walton Jr. to another injury, they were able to pull off an upset over rival Ohio State. This is a team that has seen an unheralded freshman with four names become a key contributor and a walk-on, Andrew Dakich , play in every game since the LeVert injury.
With a 15-15 record overall, Michigan is likely on the NIT bubble right now. No longer are NIT teams required to finish above .500 on the season to qualify, but since the rule change there still have not been any NIT teams with a losing record. So there is a lot on the line for this team going into the Big Ten Tournament, even if the NCAA Tournament is a pipe dream. But, just how much of a pipe dream is it?
A BTT championship is the only way the Wolverines are dancing this year, so let's see just how tough a task they are facing. As the 9-seed, their first match-up is against the 8-seeded Fighting Illini. These two teams played twice in the regular season and both were overtime contests with the home team coming away with the victory each time. In the first meeting, Michigan still had LeVert leading the team and he contributed 19 to the winning effort. The second go-round had a very interesting ending, with Michigan seemingly just running out of gas down the stretch, leading to a scoring drought that lasted about eight minutes and didn't end until the very end of the overtime period. If those two games are previews of what will happen on Thursday, then this might be the most entertaining game of the whole tourney. The key for the Wolverines will be stopping Rayvonte Rice, who has been incredible for the Illini in their last few games, including 25 points in the loss at Purdue.
Another key for Michigan in the BTT will to try and carry over their hot shooting from the Rutgers game, where they went 14-31 from three, including 8-11 from Aubrey Dawkins and 3-3 from Kameron Chatman. A victory against Illinois will advance UM to the quarterfinals against regular season champion Wisconsin.
Michigan was able to to take the Badgers to overtime in Ann Arbor earlier this year, but were unable to seal the deal. The Wisconsin loss was the last time Walton was able to play, and he not only led the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals, he also hit the three that sent the game to OT. Luckily for Michigan, there is some speculation that Walton could return in time for the BTT, the question will be whether or not his presence with help or hinder this team and their current chemistry. Coming back from an injury often leads to a bit of an adjustment period before either the player or the team is back up to speed.
If Michigan can pull off the upset, they will likely face either Purdue or Iowa in the semifinals. Both teams beat the Wolverines by double-digits in the regular season. A win there will set up a championship match-up, likely, with one of the favorites from the other side of the bracket (Maryland, MSU, OSU). This season has seen Michigan only win one (OSU) of five games against those teams, but they did take MSU to overtime in one of the losses.
In the end, Michigan likely only needs to win the Illinois game to feel secure in regards to the NIT, but while a championship run is very unlikely, it isn't impossible. This is still a team with a top quality coach and a lot of talent throughout its roster. A run of hot shooting and some lucky breaks could lead to a Big Ten Tournament result that would shock the nation, but not B1G fans, because after this season, would anything really shock us?