Many fans wrote off the Michigan Wolverines one month into the season. After a hot start and an 2K Invitational Tournament championship to begin non-conference play, Michigan suffered some bad losses.
The struggles continued into the opening weeks of Big Ten play and the result was social media and message boards calling for John Beilein’s job.
But then the Wolverines got hot, and they did so at the perfect time.
As they sit right now, Michigan may be the conference’s hottest team. They have turned things around and looked poised to make this year’s NCAA Tournament. What stands in their way now is the Big Ten Tournament. Coming in as the eighth seeded team, Michigan does not have an easy path, but may have the best path of any team outside the top four.
Michigan has drawn ninth seeded Illinois in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. This match-up has turned into quite the unique rivalry over the course of the season. Many fans may point to the first time Illinois played Michigan as the turning point in the Wolverines season. After getting dominated on the boards in a game played in Champange, IL, Michigan was referred to as a white collar team by Fighting Illini forward Maverick Morgan.
That is all it took to get Derrick Walton going. The Michigan guard was open about his displeasure with Morgan’s comments. And that displeasure was displayed on the court for the rest of the season and especially in the second meeting between Illinois and Michigan, where the Wolverines won at home by a final score of 66-57.
Thursday will mark round three between the two schools. Michigan is favored in the rubber match, according to KenPom, which gives the Wolverines a 70 percent chance of victory. As highlighted by our site manager in a piece from earlier this week Michigan is also the highest rated eight seed in Big Ten tournament history, according to KenPom, ranking 25th in the nation.
A common theme for Michigan throughout the Big Ten Tournament and moving forward into the NCAA Tournament will be the team’s defense and forward play. In their first game against the Illini, Michigan allowed 1.57 points per possession. In their second, they allowed only 57 total points and forced Illinois to turn the ball over on a third of their possessions.
Michigan’s best defensive efforts this season have come in games where they have generated a lot of turnovers. If they cannot contest shots and gets stops, turnovers are the next best thing. While unreliable, it has been effective for the Wolverines.
If they advance
So let’s say KemPom is right, Michigan puts Illinois away by more than two baskets. They then draw the top seeded team in the Big Ten, the Purdue Boilermakers.
For those of you who read the headline, it was suggested Michigan has an easy path to the finals. Playing the top seeded team in the tournament would suggest otherwise. Unless you handed the top seeded team their worst loss of the season, which Michigan did when they beat Purdue by 12 in their only match-up of the season only a few games ago.
All season, experts assumed Purdue would be a match-up nightmare for the Wolverines. The Boilermakers’ physical play and size in the frontcourt should have allowed Purdue to dominate Michigan. But Michigan is has not been playing the style of basketball we thought they would when the season began.
Michigan realized, instead of trying to run through the brick wall of rim protection that is Isaac Haas and Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan, they would shoot over them. Michigan began running screens with their four and five, utilizing the athletic mismatches of their forwards, DJ Wilson and Moritz Wagner.
Where Michigan really made the biggest stride was in the difference in guard play. Walton Jr outperformed the entire Purdue backcourt by himself.
Purdue is a smart team. They are going to attempt to avoid double teams down low and kick the ball out to an open man. They are going to go right at Wagner and attempt to get him into foul trouble. But it will be tough to adjust to the athletic mismatch posed by the Michigan frontcourt.
Purdue is the only thing sitting between Michigan and a Big Ten Finals appearance. If they can beat the Boilermakers, waiting for them in the semi-finals could be Michigan State, Minnesota, Penn State or Nebraska. Each game is a winnable and favorable match-up for Michigan, especially on a neutral court.
Michigan has wins against each of their possible semi-final match-ups except Minnesota. However, while it’s always dangerous to ignore the results of actual gameplay, it is worth noting that the differences in Michigan’s overtime road loss to Minnesota were inside play and a questionable technical foul.
If Michigan’s frontcourt comes to play for the remainder of the season (and there is no reason to suggest why they wouldn’t) the Wolverines can contend for their first Big Ten Tournament victory since 1998.
Michigan is a different team than they were when they played Illinois early in conference play. However, it is also important to note Illinois was not in desperation mode at that time either.
The Illini are attempting to string together some wins and get on top of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Michigan, looking like they should be in regardless of their Big Ten Tournament performance, is probably not comfortable with their resume.
Getting to the next round and beating Purdue again would certainly solidify Michigan’s NCAA Tournament case. That is easier said than done. If the Wolverines can get past the roadblock that is Purdue, they should be the favorite to win the whole thing and get the automatic bid from that point on. bid from tha