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Michigan Finds Themselves in Familiar Territory: The Bubble

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For the second consecutive season, Michigan’s final 15 regular season games will determine their postseason fate. One or two games could swing the balance of the entire season.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With 48 seconds left, Maryland freshman Justin Jackson lined up his seventh shot attempt. The Terp buried it, his sixth field goal of the game, and Maryland extended their lead to five, ultimately leading to a 77-70 victory Saturday afternoon at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor.

Michigan had no answers defensively, as the Terps sliced the Wolverines for 52% shooting, including 10-15 on 3-pointers. The Wolverines had no answer for Jackson, Damonte Dodd and Jared Nickens, as Dodd dunked his way to 15 points and Nickens knocked down all four of his 3-point attempts. Terp stud Melo Trimble didn’t have a great game, as the sophomore struggled his way to 13 points, six rebounds and four assists.

For the Wolverines, this is a game they felt was absolutely winnable. But before they could get settled, Maryland jumped out to a 37-28 halftime lead and Michigan didn’t have enough of a comeback left in them. There were some bright spots, as German sophomore Moritz Wagner showed off his full array of offensive skill finishing with 17 points and five rebounds.

The light has clearly gone on for Wagner, and the same can be said for D.J. Wilson. The Wolverine forward put together another nice performance scoring 13 points, and Zak Irvin added 15. Michigan still is lacking production from their senior point guard, as Derrick Walton Jr. made two shots in 32 minutes and finishing with a paltry five points, one assist and one rebound.

If Michigan is serious about making the NCAA Tournament, a loss at home to a good, but not overwhelming Maryland team is simply inexcusable. This is a veteran team with five returning starters, and two other rotation players that got significant minutes last season. The sense of urgency still doesn’t appear to be there, and Michigan will have a rude awakening coming up if they’re not up to the challenge.

This starts Wednesday night (9:00, BTN) with Illinois, a team that also sits at 1-2 in league play and continues to struggle for answers on both the offensive and defensive end. The Illini rely heavily on Malcolm Hill, and the senior guard has carried Illinois with nearly 19 points and six rebounds per game. Fellow senior Tracy Abrams (who turns 25 in February) helps Hill in the backcourt with 11 points per game, but the senior has been wildly inconsistent all season. If Michigan can shut down Hill, this could go a long way to stealing a victory in Champaign.

In the frontcourt, Mike Thorne and Leron Black start and give the Illini some punch at the two forward spots for Illinois. Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke are both solid players around the rim off the bench and give the Illini good size with both players standing at 6’10”.

Looking at this Illinois team, it’s not one that has any business beating a very offensively talented Michigan team. The Illini have allowed 83.3 points through their first three conferences games, the worst mark in the entire conference. If Michigan is able to drive the ball to the basket through Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (who finally had a nice game with 12 points against Maryland), this will open up the floor and allow the Wolverine shooters space to knock down shots.

Overall, this week feels like an absolutely crucial one for Michigan. A win against Illinois could be the turning point, and a game on Saturday afternoon against scorching hot Nebraska looms large in Ann Arbor. If Michigan is able to take care of both, they’ll be in the right direction for a brutal four week stretch. If not, it’s time to start pointing the finger and figure out what needs to change for Michigan basketball.