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Michigan Inches Closer to NCAA Tournament Berth

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in a home game in weeks, Michigan actually came out ready to play. There was no first half scoring drought, and the intensity level didn’t conjure up bad memories of “Northwestern or Maryland first half” sluggishness. Michigan and Ohio State went back and forth for the majority of the first half, but the introduction of Jordan Poole knocked the game wide open.

Poole entered the game with Michigan down 14-10, and knocked in his first three-pointer. If Poole connects on his first shot, he’s a decent bet to rack up double figures. If he misses the first couple, his minutes dwindle and the impact is far less important. He finished with 12 points in the first half, a nifty assist to Jon Teske, and helped Michigan race out to a 33-28 lead.

In the second half, Michigan relied on a heavy dose of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Zavier Simpson. Charles Matthews and Moritz Wagner each had a few baskets as well, but Michigan’s backcourt took control of the game and never let the Buckeyes get closer than five points over the final seven minutes.

It’s tricky how to best evaluate Michigan’s performance given the defensive effort was undoubtedly the best part of the Wolverines’ gameplan. Eventual Conference Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop started off 2-14 against a combination of Duncan Robinson and Isaiah Livers, but his made his last three shots to finish 5-17. Michigan had no answer for Jae’Sean Tate as the Buckeyes four-forward lineup gave Michigan major trouble, but the rest of the roster struggled in some form or another.

The Wesson brothers combined for only 16 points and six rebounds, with Andre fouling out in only 22 minutes of play. C.J. Jackson had more turnovers (three) than field goals and assists (one), and the Buckeye bench combined to shoot 3-13. It was a disappointing homecoming for Michigan graduate Andrew Dakich, who has been so effective for Ohio State all season but had little impact in 22 minutes.

Was this game a sign that Michigan might be extremely good defensively or that maybe Ohio State isn’t as good as their 13-3 conference record suggests? Realistically, it’s probably somewhere in the middle. This is by far John Beilein’s best defensive team he’s had at Michigan, as previously poor defenders Wagner and Duncan Robinson have become adequate, while Simpson and Matthews give this team another added defensive dimension. Add in Isaiah Livers who can guard bigger opposing forwards with his large frame and behemoth Jon Teske, and seven of Michigan’s rotation players are at least adequate on that side of the ball.

I’ll quickly jump back to Wednesday’s game against cellar dwellers Iowa. The Hawkeyes raced out to a 9-2 lead in the first three minutes, only to score 50 points for the remaining 37 minutes as Michigan cruised to a 74-59 victory. There wasn’t a huge amount to take away from this game, but I’ll pick three interesting things I found.

First, Duncan Robinson finally has finally found his shot. While he wasn’t great shooting against Ohio State, Robinson was 10-15 over his previous two games from behind the arc. Michigan has not lost this season when Robinson has scored at least six points, and his shooting ability when he’s connecting means guys like MAAR, Matthews and Simpson have more driving room when Robinson’s defender needs to keep him in check.

Second, Michigan has their rotation set. The starting lineup going forward remains Simpson, MAAR, Matthews, Livers and Wagner, with Robinson, Poole, Teske and Jaaron Simmons rounding out the nine man rotation. I’d expect to see a pretty even split minutes-wise between Livers and Robinson, while Poole is still picking off scraps from MAAR and Matthews. Teske has been excellent in backup minutes behind Wagner this season, and given the foul trouble against Iowa and Ohio State, Teske racked up 16 productive minutes in both games (nine points, 12 rebounds, four steals and a block in 32 minutes).

But the most intriguing piece is at the point guard spot. Simpson has done nothing that would cause him to lose his starting spot, but Simmons appears to be getting a better grasp of the offense. Against Iowa, Simpson finished with no points and three turnovers in 25 minutes with only one shot attempt. Simmons had five points and four assists in 12 minutes, proving his worth to some extent. It’ll be interesting to see whether Beilein continues giving Simpson 30+ minutes a game, or whether Simmons can trim that number close to 20 or 25.

Lastly, someone needs to help Charles Matthews on the offensive end. His scoring average at 13.5 points per game is completely inflated by his major scoring output at the beginning of the season. In his last five games, Matthews is averaging nine points per game, shooting 18-47 from the floor for 38%, and 1-9 on three pointers. Four of these games have come against Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa, a Big Ten West quartet that won’t be making the NCAA Tournament, and Matthews only attempted six shots for six points against Ohio State.

With Wagner, MAAR, Simpson and even Robinson and Poole becoming a more efficient part of the offense, it’s tough to know exactly how Matthews fits. He’s lethal at driving to the midrange and knocking down pull-up jumpers, but he continues to get called for offensive fouls while driving to the lane. If he gets to the free throw line, he’s only converting there at a 53% clip. It’ll be really interesting to see how Beilein approaches offensive sets with Matthews over the final two regular season games and heading into the postseason, but don’t expect major scoring outputs like the beginning of the season.

This week, Michigan ends the season with two extremely tricky road tests against the upper-middle class of the Big Ten. Penn State has been scorching hot in their last eight games, beating Ohio State in Columbus before losing two extremely close games to Michigan State and Purdue on the road in that span. Michigan presents a chance at a major Quadrant I opportunity for the Nittany Lions, who can help themselves in a major way this week by beating the Wolverines and then knocking off Nebraska in Lincoln.

Tony Carr, Shep Garner and Josh Reaves form one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten, while Mike Watkins is averaging close to a double-double and Lamar Stevens rounds out the starting lineup. All five guys average double figures, but the Nittany Lions don’t have too much scoring punch outside of those guys. Limiting offensive rebounds will be extremely key in this one, as Penn State grabbed 11 against Purdue.

On Saturday, Michigan concludes Big Ten play with a trip to Maryland. The Terrapins have had their chances to pick up marquee victories in conference play, but have lost to Michigan State twice, Purdue twice, at Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska. All eight of these games would fall under Quadrant I, and Maryland is 0-8.

The Terrapins’ starting unit is one of the best in the Big Ten, as Bruno Fernando, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter are all top-level talent. Darryl Morsell and Dion Wiley have been solid but unspectacular this season, but the Terps lack of depth and quality bench play has been the difference this season. Jared Nickens and Michal Cekovsky are both being honored for Senior Day on Saturday, but this probably will have a minimal impact on their play.

If Michigan wants to improve their seeding for both Big Ten and NCAA Tournament play, these two games are massive. Neither will hurt if they lose, but both could likely fall under Quadrant I. In terms of the Big Ten Tournament, if Michigan beats Penn State and Maryland and Penn State is able to knock off Nebraska, Michigan would move into the #4 seed and collect the double bye. This would be extremely beneficial so Michigan wouldn’t have to play the winner of the dreaded #12 vs. #13 game, where a win means nothing but a loss can negatively impact the resume. I’m guessing Michigan splits the pair, but 2-0 would mean excellent momentum heading into March.