Zack Novak looks to pass around the defense of Tom Pritchard, left, and Victor Oladipo on Saturday. (Associated Press)
Ann Arbor-- They're not fully in the NCAA Tournament picture yet, but it's time to start discussing if they'll be in the discussion. It's rarely easy or conventional, but the Wolverines have scrapped their way back to relevancy, and could be eyeing even more.
The good news about Michigan's Tournament chances: The selection committee generally doesn't spend time poring over late-game free throw attempts.
The reality of their chances: They have to win at least three more games, including a giant one on the road.
If you're surprised we're even having this discussion, that's necessary improvement right there. Michigan edged Indiana, 73-69, Saturday in sold-out Crisler Arena despite nearly squandering a 22-point lead, missing an astonishing 11 free throws in the final five minutes.
It was a game the Wolverines couldn't lose no matter how it looked, and it'll be this tense the rest of the way now. They're 16-10 and 6-7 in the Big Ten, and while they have some very nice victories -- at Clemson, at Michigan State, at Penn State -- I'm not sure they have an absolute eye-opener.
I've said it before, so I might as well keep the in-state juices flowing: The NCAA hopes for Michigan and Michigan State (14-10, 6-6) indeed might come down to the regular-season finale in Ann Arbor March 5.
The Spartans always have a shot, even during the rockiest of seasons. The Wolverines have fought for their shot, getting better and better, and give John Beilein's group credit for that. Three weeks ago, they were mired in a six-game losing streak. Now they've won five of six, and are developing a potentially dynamic backcourt of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darius Morris.
That's how you win in college basketball, with your guards, and Michigan has a couple of good ones, although they're young, although they're growing quickly.
"The NCAA is definitely our goal, and we're not ignorant to where we stand," Morris said. "After we beat Michigan State, we realized, 'Hey, we can pull this out. We can do it. We can be special.'"
Going gets tougher, though
The Wolverines' rare victory in East Lansing did spark something, and certainly lit the confidence of their freshman-sophomore backcourt. Against the Hoosiers, Hardaway scored 26 and Morris 15, and that combo is getting more dangerous by the game. Hardaway, especially, is ratcheting up his aggressiveness, showing he can do it the hard way (going to the basket) or the open way (4 for 6 on 3-pointers).
The problem is, the games are about to get much tougher -- at Illinois, at Iowa, home to Wisconsin, at Minnesota, home to Michigan State.
The Wolverines need to win three to get to 9-9 in the Big Ten, or go on a decent run in the conference tournament. The two home games will be very difficult, but on the bright side, Wisconsin's victory over No. 1 Ohio State elevates its profile, making a victory over the Badgers more valuable.
Say the Wolverines somehow beat the Badgers and Spartans at home. (Come on, play along, it's not unreasonable.) They'd still need to win one of those road games, and even last-place Iowa is a test (ask the Spartans).
Beilein doesn't want to tout any Tournament chances yet, just as he didn't want to overreact to the free throw woes. The Wolverines shoot a respectable 70.3 percent as a team, but were 19 for 37 Saturday. They hit a higher percentage of 3-pointers (53.3) than 2-pointers (51.4), and a festive crowd spent the last two minutes groaning.
But hey, a month ago the Wolverines were blown out by the Hoosiers, 80-61. Since then, the schedule has gotten better but so has the shot selection, and so have Hardaway and Morris.
"We just kind of looked ourselves in the mirror after the Minnesota game at home (a 69-64 loss) and we didn't like what we saw," junior Zack Novak said. "Guys weren't playing with the energy we needed. The last few weeks, we've really focused. Once you get back inside your goal, it gives you a little extra motivation because you can see it. That's just psychology -- when you're closer to a goal, you're gonna work harder to get it."
The NCAA picture is still foggy, but at least the Wolverines can see the frame, not bad considering few preseason predictions had them going anywhere except the NIT. Seeing it and reaching it are two different things. The margin for error is thin, and no more late-game clanking is allowed.
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