Paul: For first time, UM has firm grasp on NCAA bid

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Zak Irvin

Ann Arbor -- Many, many times this season, Michigan has looked like anything but an NCAA Tournament team.

Against SMU, for instance. And Indiana. And Michigan State. And there are other examples, too, even if they weren't quite as ugly.

But the Wolverines have stayed mighty resilient, preaching growth every day, even in the face of those saying their season wouldn't last much into March, and now are on the brink of a return to the NCAA Tournament.

With a gritty, grueling 61-56 victory over No. 18 Purdue at Crisler Center on Saturday, Michigan now has two signature victories in Big Ten play, after beating then-No. 3 Maryland at home last month.

Michigan also picked off a win against Texas in nonconference play -- a win that has gotten better and better as the season has gone along, as the Longhorns have picked off several quality wins.

So aware of what that win could mean, last month, Michigan coach John Beilein even flashed a smile and the "Hook 'em Horns" sign.

That, of course, was back when Michigan had to hope for others to help bolster its own resume.

Now, for the first time all season, the Wolverines have a firm grasp on a Big Dance appearance, provided they don't completely fall apart over the final five regular-season games.

"Now," said Beilein, "we've gotta get more."

Do the math

Back before Big Ten play began, Beilein told me not to give up on this team, even though I'd just watched, and winced, 40 minutes of butt-kicking at SMU.

He preached there'd be growth, even if it wasn't always pretty. And, well, Beilein was right.

Wojo: UM digs deep to produce character win

Before the Purdue game, I figured Michigan needed to win three of its final six games to guarantee an NCAA Tournament appearance. That would get them to 21 wins, or 20 if you don't count the win over Division III Northern Michigan in the opener.

Three wins also would get them 11 Big Ten wins, which is tough to ignore.

Now, because Purdue was a signature win, it seems Michigan would be good with 10 Big Ten wins.

That means if Michigan wins one of its final five, it should be good. And that's going to happen, possibly as early as Tuesday at Ohio State, or the week after at home against Northwestern.

Winning at Maryland next week, or at Wisconsin on Feb. 28, or home against Iowa in the Big Ten finale -- those are some toughies.

You can now see why the Purdue win was so big. The margin for error for the Wolverines grew exponentially overnight.

Now, it's almost playing for NCAA Tournament seeding, which could get a huge boost if Michigan (19-7, 9-4) can hang on to fourth place in the Big Ten and earn a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament.

Who would've thought that when SMU was throwing down dunk after dunk, or when Indiana was going on a 29-0 run, or when Michigan State was leaving a full house at Crisler Center as quiet as church on Sunday morning?

"I think we grew up a lot as a team," Beilein said. "Knowing games are going to be tough, you're going to have to be tougher."

After Michigan's narrow win over Minnesota, which followed Michigan's humblings by Indiana and Michigan State, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had Michigan holding on to a No. 9 seed.

That seemed generous at the time, but upon further examination, it made some sense, given all seven of Michigan's losses were to teams ranked, at least at the time, in the Associated Press Top 25. The Wolverines have three road wins (four if you count Penn State in New York), and they haven't suffered a loss to a bad team, even if they've played very badly against some elite teams.

In the next bracketology, the Wolverines likely will have the up-arrow by their name when Lunardi updates things Monday morning.

An added bonus to Michigan's case: Caris LeVert is back, returning Saturday after 11 games out with a lower-left leg injury. He played 11 first-half minutes, grabbing five rebounds, before sitting the second half with fatigue.

He's only going to get stronger, quicker and sharper down the stretch, assuming he avoids further injury, which makes Michigan a much better and deeper team heading into March. LeVert soon will return to the starting lineup, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman soon will combine with Aubrey Dawkins for a dynamic duo off the bench -- Dawkins on offense, Abdur-Rahkman on defense.

Confidence boost

Michigan didn't just beat Purdue on Saturday. It beat Purdue with toughness and defense, when the 3-pointers just weren't falling. The Wolverines, destroyed in the paint and on the boards the first meeting at West Lafayette on Jan. 7, amazingly won in both categories Saturday.

That should give them confidence going forward, that when the 3s aren't falling, the game's not over -- as it had been on previous cold-shooting nights.

"That was an emphasis," Abdur-Rahkman said. "Even when we're not making shots, we still have to play defense."

And, boy, did Michigan play some defense Saturday, against a Purdue team that has multiple 7-footers, and a dynamic freshman in Caleb Swanigan.

Yet, Purdue went more than 3 minutes at the end of the game without scoring, and missed its final six shots -- several of them in the paint. Coach Matt Painter said that's all he could ask for, looks in the paint, but Michigan harassed and hustled, and kept the Boilermakers ball from falling.

Michigan proved a lot to itself in that game, and now needs to hang on to that moving forward -- because, while one more win probably gets the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament, two would be much more comfortable and keep the selection committee from criticizing a down-the-stretch hiccup, and three would get them a good road in the Big Ten tournament -- and, thus, potentially start boosting their NCAA Tournament seeding.

Let's be honest: It was awfully hard to see this coming, as early as December and as recently as last week.

"Everyone's really counted us out," said Zak Irvin, who lived up to his "Mr. Big Shot" nickname Saturday.

Guilty, here.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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