Paul: Making sense of UM's NCAA Tournament case

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. drives to the basket during Sunday's loss at Maryland.

Two weeks to go.

After all the hours in the gym, after all the ups and downs, after all the injuries -- a season-ender for Spike Albrecht, and perhaps a season-ender for Caris LeVert -- Michigan, despite so many critics along the way, at least finds itself in serious contention to get back to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season.

But, as coach John Beilein said Sunday following a hard-fought but crushing loss to No. 6 Maryland, the Wolverines have work to do.

They have three regular-season games left, and sit at 19-9 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten.

Michigan is at home Wednesday against Northwestern, then plays at Wisconsin on Sunday, followed by the regular-season finale March 5 at home against Iowa.

After that, there's the Big Ten tournament, where Michigan, if still on the bubble, could pick up some brownie points with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee -- but, surely, would prefer not to leave it up to that.


Michigan, after all, already has put itself in this dicey position, following a great signature victory over then-No. 18 Purdue with back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Maryland.

If Michigan had beaten Maryland on Sunday, that would've given the Wolverines a season sweep over the Terrapins, when they were ranked third and sixth in the nation, and might've just sealed things.

"It makes things a lot tougher," said Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, before adding, "I think we're in pretty good shape."

Not everyone would agree.

UM�s stout effort not enough vs. No. 6 Maryland

The least Michigan has to do to get in is beat Northwestern, which would give the Wolverines a 10th Big Ten win, and a 20th win overall.

There's a problem with that, though -- assuming Michigan loses the final two games, against a Wisconsin team that's playing well, and an Iowa team that's not, but already has beaten Michigan once.

Michigan opened the season with Division II Northern Michigan, which really doesn't count in the eyes of the Selection Committee. So that means we're looking at 19 wins. And while 10 Big Ten wins typically would be enough, things are so bunched in the conference this season, that's anyone's guess.

So, to be safe, Michigan needs to win two of its last three -- and that's certainly not out of the question, especially considering Wisconsin, while much better now than in December, remains vulnerable, and Iowa has lost two of its last three, including once to Penn State.

Less than two, though, and Michigan knows it will head to Indianapolis and the Big Ten tournament likely playing for its NCAA Tournament life. And even if it wins once or twice there, there's no guarantee of a bid, as any first two opponents aren't going to be highly regarded.

Things are about to get interesting, that's for sure, as if this college basketball season hasn't been dramatic enough.

It's worth noting, there is good news for the teams on the bubble this season: It helps that SMU and Louisville are banned from postseason play, opening up two more spots for those with good but not great resumes -- assuming there aren't more than the normal supply of upsets in the mid-major conference tournaments.

Irvin�s turnover on inbounds pass costly for Michigan

In the Big Ten, essentially, Michigan and Wisconsin, which survived disaster against Illinois on Sunday, and just maaaaaybe Ohio State, are vying for that sixth conference bid -- after Michigan State, Iowa, Maryland, Indiana and Purdue -- and trying their darndest to convince the powers-that-be that a seventh team is deserving, too.

Let's take a look at the case for and against Michigan playing in the Big Dance.


* Michigan, at least, has some signature victories in the Big Ten, over Maryland and Purdue, both at home. It also has a nonconference win that, at the time, didn't seem like much, but now is a big gold star on the Wolverines' resume -- as Texas has racked up quality win over quality win, including against North Carolina, and twice against West Virginia.

* Michigan has three true Big Ten road wins -- including an impressive one at Nebraska, after Nebraska had just celebrated a win at Michigan State -- and a fourth on a neutral floor at Madison Square Garden against a Penn State team that did beat Iowa.

* Eight of Michigan's nine losses were to teams that, at least at the time, were ranked in the Associated Press top 25.


* That loss to Ohio State. Beilein did his best lobbying Sunday when he said, "Ohio State's not a bad loss," and it being on the road helps the cause. But the Buckeyes are not looked upon favorably by any of the metrics experts. That's because they haven't beaten anybody of substance since December, when they upset Kentucky, and are likely to expose themselves the final three games against Michigan State (twice) and Iowa.

* It's time for Beilein to start scheduling more marquee nonconference games. Michigan's nonconference schedule was ranked 223rd nationally by KenPom. And it didn't help that the big opponents it did get, Xavier, UConn and SMU, the Wolverines got smoked all three times.

* LeVert. If he hadn't suffered a setback, the Selection Committee could've taken his late return into account, and been lenient. That might not be an option now.


I see Michigan getting into the NCAA Tournament by beating Northwestern for Big Ten win No. 10, then picking off Iowa at home in early March.

Iowa has incredible talent, had a legit case to be ranked No. 1 not too long ago, and did beat Michigan back in Iowa City last month. But that game wasn't as one-sided as the final score (82-71) might've suggested.