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In a Down Big Ten, All Michigan Can Do is Win

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NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

At some point during Michigan’s 92-88 loss to Purdue on Thursday, it hit me that this Michigan team might actually be very good. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who has vacillated between the third and fourth option in recent weeks behind Charles Matthews and Moritz Wagner, had the best game of his incredibly consistent career. The senior rose to the occasion on the biggest stage, finishing 10-15 shooting for 26 points. Abdur-Rahkman often gets lost in the shuffle behind the two aforementioned players, the sharpshooting Duncan Robinson, or high-impact freshman Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole. But make no mistake, Thursday was his night.

Unfortunately, like most of Michigan’s big road games this season, the Wolverines made a few too many mistakes down the stretch to beat one of the very best teams in the entire country. Charles Matthews made a consistently “Matthewsian” error, making a poor pass for a turnover with three minutes left. Moritz Wagner dribbled the ball off his foot the next Michigan possession, and an Isaac Haas dunk on the other end for Purdue sealed a Boilermaker victory.

Despite the loss, there’s still a tremendous amount of positivity to take away from the game. Abdur-Rahkman, Wagner, Matthews and Zavier Simpson all had very solid offensive games (though Simpson padded the stats with some garbage time layups while Purdue shot free throws). Livers wasn’t a force offensively, but his size, presence and rebounding make him a crucial player to defend against guys like Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias.

Off the bench, Jon Teske had a very solid game against Haas. He finished with eight points and three rebounds in 14 minutes while Wagner was saddled with foul trouble. Duncan Robinson and Jordan Poole poured in five points apiece, providing Michigan with shooting in a game where points were crucial at every juncture. The only player who contributed nothing for Michigan was Jaaron Simmons, who finished with three turnovers and a foul in three minutes. In a game where every possession matters, Simmons was a major black eye to an otherwise excellent effort.

Looking forward, Monday night’s game starts Michigan’s stretch of eight extremely winnable games. Northwestern has underachieved all year, but like every game left on the schedule, Michigan’s opponent has a few players capable of changing a game. Northwestern’s guys in that category are Bryant McIntosh, who has played at Northwestern roughly since the beginning of the Bill Carmody era, and Vic Law, the highest rated recruit Northwestern has ever had. Both guys present unique challenges, and with Michigan struggling a bit for consistency at the point guard position, McIntosh could have a major impact.

The Wolverines welcome another middling Big Ten team on Saturday, as Minnesota and their dark cloud come to Crisler Center. Just a few short weeks ago, the Golden Gophers were the talk of the Big Ten regarding their own sexual allegation issues. Center Reggie Lynch, who for reasons that remain unclear is still a part of the Minnesota basketball team, was accused of three sexual assaults between April and May of 2016. Since Lynch’s suspension, Minnesota has been awful. The Gophers are just 1-6 in that stretch, with the lone victory coming in overtime at Penn State.

Amir Coffey has returned from injury and played in the last two games, and he alongside Jordan Murphy still make one of the most formidable tandems in the Big Ten. However, Minnesota’s bench is largely a non-factor. In the games since Coffey has returned, they’ve combined to score eight points. In other words, if Michigan can get some Golden Gophers in foul trouble, that could be major trouble for Minnesota.

These two home games are as close to must-wins as Michigan will have all season. This week will set the standard for the rest of the year, and beating two middle-tier Big Ten teams can’t do anything but add to the win column. Michigan actually doesn’t play a team inside the top-90 in RPI until February 18th, a home game against Ohio State.

Since none of these games can boost the resume, it’ll be interesting to see how the teams Michigan beat earlier in the season finish out their own year. Right now, Michigan only has two top-50 RPI wins, both coming on the road against Michigan State and Texas. The Longhorns play in a brutally tough Big 12 that could bump their RPI down another 10 or 15 spots, and Michigan State is in the middle of their own major sexual allegation crisis in which fans and alumni are calling for a clean house of every major Spartan administrator or coach. President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis are already out, and Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio could be next on the chopping block. If Izzo goes, Michigan State’s season could implode.

Michigan owns two other top-100 RPI wins including UCLA, who seemed to have righted the ship after shoplifting charges in China suspended three players for the season. The Bruins dropped three consecutive games against Colorado, Oregon State and Oregon, and appear to be fighting for their tournament lives. If the Bruins can’t win one of their next three against USC, Arizona and Arizona State, their season is effectively over.

Maryland continues to scrap on after injuries and Mark Turgeon has been going with seven rotation players. The Terrapins are running out of chances after going 0-5 thus far against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue. With games against Purdue and Michigan still on the schedule, Maryland needs to win at least one of those two. Without it, the Terrapins will only claim one top-50 win against Butler despite winning 19 or 20 games overall.

In short, Michigan won’t find itself on the bubble if it continues to win the games it’s supposed to, but a lot of those marquee victories from earlier in the season have lost their luster. While this won’t affect getting into the tournament, it will limit Michigan’s ceiling in terms of a seeding likely to a six or seven seed. I’d be willing to bet that Michigan ends up with three top-50 RPI victories heading into the Big Ten Tournament (Texas, Michigan State and Ohio State, with Maryland right on the bubble). That would mean 25 wins overall, but not a whole heck of a lot to show for it.