After John Beilein left the Michigan Wolverines last spring, nobody was quite sure what to expect out of the program. It felt like anything could be on the table for what had been one of the more successful programs of the last decade. Eventually, Michigan hired Juwan Howard, who has led the team to a relatively solid season. The Wolverines now appear poised to get back to the NCAA Tournament and look pretty dangerous on paper.
But how will that translate to Indy? And how likely are the Wolverines to win this year’s Big Ten Tournament? Let’s take a look.
As the nine seed, Michigan will open things up on Thursday against Rutgers in the earliest game of the day. For a season highlighted by tremendous ups and downs, it seems fair for the Wolverines to land right around the middle in the Big Ten Tournament bracket.
The B1G tourney field is set. pic.twitter.com/pV0b4p0nxl— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 9, 2020
On paper, Michigan’s opener looks manageable. The Wolverines are better than the Scarlet Knights from a statistical perspective and won both of the regular season meetings between the two teams. Michigan just seems to be a tough matchup for Rutgers this season, likely due to the team’s tremendous length.
Still, things won’t be easy. Both of the prior meetings were competitive and Rutgers enters the postseason with some momentum after beating Maryland and Purdue last week. The game will likely come down to the offensive boards. If Michigan holds up there, it should have a decent shot at moving on to Friday. KenPom views the game as a virtual coin flip and views Michigan as narrow 56 percent favorites.
-If They Advance
Should Michigan make it past Rutgers, it would then have to face off against the Big Ten Tournament’s top seeded Wisconsin Badgers. Michigan lost the only regular season meeting between the two teams and the Badgers have looked virtually unbeatable over the last month or so of conference play. Wisconsin enters the postseason having won eight straight and nine of the team’s last 10 games.
However, there are some legitimate reasons for hope about Michigan’s chances against the Badgers. To start, Michigan is actually ranked above Wisconsin on KenPom. Even if Wisconsin has been better as of late, it’s hard to say the Wolverines don’t have a chance when they’ve been stronger in a number of statistical areas this season. Additionally, Michigan may have lost the lone meeting between the two during the regular season, but the game was competitive and Eli Brooks was sidelined with injury. Perhaps that game goes differently is Brooks is available.
Michigan would also have the benefit of confidence and comfort against the Badgers, having played (and won) the day before. Wisconsin will be coming into its Friday game ice cold after being off since Saturday. Playing back-to-back games will eventually wear you out, but it takes more than two games to do it. If Michigan can hit the ground running and get Wisconsin down, perhaps they can sneak out the upset. With those factors in mind, it’s not too difficult to see Michigan making it to Saturday this week.
After that, Michigan would likely be looking at a game against Illinois or Iowa on Saturday, though Minnesota is my dark horse to make a run this year. Interestingly, Michigan is actually ranked higher on KenPom than all of its potential Saturday opponents, despite being seeded significantly lower than Illinois and Iowa and only going 1-3 against those teams during the regular season. Still, just as we talked about with Wisconsin, it’s hard to rule Michigan out when it appears to have a statistical advantage over its opponents, at least on paper.
A championship game would likely come against Maryland or Michigan State. Obviously, either of those opponents would be a tremendous challenge.
Michigan is widely projected as a safe bet to make this year’s NCAA Tournament in large part because of its early seasons wins and its tremendous strength of schedule. However, securing a 20th win on Thursday would certainly remove any remaining doubt.
The main goal for the Wolverines this week (other than winning the Big Ten Tournament) will be improving its seeding for Selection Sunday. TRank currently projects Michigan as a five seed in the NCAA Tournament, but most others have the Wolverines a bit lower. Winning a few extra games would secure that position and help Michigan avoid a seeding range (7-10) where the team might have to face a top seed in the first weekend.
As tough as Michigan might have it in Indy, this really isn’t that unfavorable of a path for the Wolverines. The team seems to have a matchup advantage against its opening round opponent and is rated higher on KenPom than anyone on its side of the bracket, including top seeded Wisconsin. For a team slotted as a nine seed, that’s a pretty favorable draw.
With all that said, Michigan has struggled with consistency this year and will have its hands full on Thursday, and Friday if it even makes it there. The Wolverines are more than capable of making it to Sunday, but it’s going to be a tall task. A two-and-done seems the most likely.