Michigan’s last two games highlighted everything we’ve known to be true about this team for the first four months. The Wolverines have unlimited potential with a five-out offense, have somehow morphed into an excellent defensive team, continue to struggle (for the most part) in clicking on offense in first halves, and still can’t shoot free throws.
Against Northwestern, Michigan’s offense clicked in the first five minutes. The Wolverines raced out to a 13-3 lead after the first five minutes, but only mustered 39 points in the final 35 minutes. Michigan had plenty of chances to cut the deficit, but most of these resulted in turnovers or sloppy possessions and poor late-clock shots.
Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman were the only double-figure scorers, while Charles Matthews struggled mightily again. Matthews was better against Wisconsin as we’ll get to, but his aggressive style leads to offensive fouls and deep two-point shots. Occasionally he’ll get to the basket, but it’s never a great sign when you have more turnovers (three) than field goals (two) in 26 minutes of play.
On Sunday, Michigan found a way to play one of its best first halves of the season. They shot 68%, including 8-13 on three-pointers to race out to 44 points. Michigan sputtered in the second half, allowing 50 points to a mediocre Wisconsin team, but did just enough to eke out a 83-72 victory.
Moritz Wagner was in the zone again, finishing with 20 points for the second consecutive game. He did it both inside and out, knocking down three three-pointers while also making five inside the arc. Duncan Robinson found his form, making all four of his three-pointers in the first half en route to 16 points. MAAR made seven of his eight free throws to finish with 15 points, Charles Matthews added 11, and in-state kid Jordan Poole had eight points in his first matchup in Madison.
There still remain questions, however, about how Michigan closed the game. The second half defensive performance leaves a lot to be desired. Michigan also fouled two Wisconsin shooters on three-pointers, giving the Badgers six free points in 13 seconds. The other question is what Michigan is supposed to do with Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson in late-game situations. Simpson missed two front-end of one-and-ones in a 45 second stretch, prompting John Beilein to pull him for Jordan Poole.
I said this last week, but Michigan is going to lose a game in the NCAA Tournament if the free throw miss parade continues. The only guys I’d really feel comfortable with stepping to the line at this point are MAAR and Robinson, and having Poole in the backcourt as the third banana to handle the ball is a reasonable option. Besides for that, it appears that the rest of the players (except for Wagner) probably shouldn’t be anywhere near the ball.
With Michigan’s 1-1 split on the week, that leaves them at 20-7 overall and 9-5 in conference play with four games remaining. It appears that the top four seeds are pretty much decided, with the best three teams in the league, Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State, head and shoulders above everyone else. Nebraska has a one-game lead for fourth place, and given they play three of the final four at home and have only lost there once all season, that appears to be a pretty safe lead.
Michigan has a one-game lead on Penn State, and with two games this week at home and a trip to State College in the next three games, Michigan can clinch an extremely important fifth place. Since Ohio State has a one-game lead on Michigan State and Purdue with the tiebreak, the Buckeyes can afford to lose one game and still finish as the #1 seed in the conference tournament.
This would mean Michigan’s first game would be against the winner of the #12 vs. #13 game, which would be some wretched combination of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Rutgers. Nebraska would be waiting in the next game, their only legitimate win all season against this very Michigan team in Lincoln. This would also line up a probable semi-final against Ohio State, a team that of the three major contenders in the Big Ten is definitely the most beatable.
What does all of this mean? Michigan’s games this week are massive for their Big Ten and NCAA Tournament seeding in very different ways. The Wolverines first welcome the aforementioned dreadful Iowa Hawkeyes, who have had an uninspiring Big Ten campaign. Michigan feasted on Iowa in their first matchup, winning 75-68 in a scoreline that is much closer than the game actually was. The Hawkeyes actually played Michigan State really tough in last Tuesday’s showdown, as Tyler Cook and Jordan Bohannon combined for 43 points in a 96-93 loss at home. Cook will be the danger man for the Hawkeyes against Michigan again, especially if Isaiah Livers can’t go. Michigan should win this one comfortably, but the Wolverines have been prone to get off to sluggish starts, especially at home.
On Sunday, the Wolverines are out for revenge against one of the four Big Ten teams who have beaten them. Ohio State seems to have everything clicking at the right time, and Keita Bates-Diop deserves all the accolades he’s received so far this season. But outside of Bates-Diop, this Buckeye team doesn’t have anyone else on the roster who should strike fear into Michigan. This is also Andrew Dakich’s first and only game against Michigan at Crisler Center, a weird concept for the redshirt senior who played in Ann Arbor for four years. Michigan is desperate for a key victory, with the two road wins at Texas and Michigan State the only bullet points on the resume of note.
If Michigan is able to win both games, they’ll put themselves in great position with two tricky road tests to end the season. The continued success of Wagner, MAAR, Matthews and Robinson will be key, as will getting Zavier Simpson and a hopefully healthy Isaiah Livers back on the right track.