On bubble, Michigan finds itself in familiar territory

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — As the season winds down, Michigan finds itself in an all-too-familiar predicament needing to make a late push to put itself in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

Last year, the Wolverines were on the outside looking in after losing four of their final five regular-season games before upsetting top-seeded Indiana in the Big Ten tournament and landing one of the final spots with a 22-12 record.

Entering Thursday’s matchup against No. 11 Wisconsin, Michigan sits at 16-9 (6-6 Big Ten) and likely needs to reach at least 20 wins to have a shot at grabbing an at-large bid. The Wolverines have six games remaining — four on the road — before heading to Washington D.C. for the conference tournament.

“We had this situation last year with Purdue, with Iowa, Northwestern and Indiana down the stretch and we won three of those four,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We really thought the Iowa game (a 71-61 loss in the regular-season finale) was the game we had to win last year and we didn’t get it. We grew from it and we still had a chance.

“So you don’t want to close the door on any game, but I think you have to take the approach that this is the game that’s going to determine it. This is the play that’s going to determine the Super Bowl. If you have that, I think it’s healthy for them right now. I don’t think they’ll be playing afraid to lose. I think they’ll be playing and giving everything they can to win.”

Prior to hosting Wisconsin, Michigan is firmly on the bubble as a No. 10 seed in weekly projections by CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. Palm has the Wolverines among one of 10 teams on the fence and Lunardi lists them as one of the teams to receive the last four byes.

Michigan is ranked 55th in RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) and is 2-6 against RPI top 50 teams, with wins over SMU and Michigan State and narrow losses to Virginia Tech, Maryland and Wisconsin. Its worst defeats are at Illinois and at home to Ohio State.

But the Wolverines have chances to bolster their resume and pick up quality wins, starting against the Badgers. Michigan hosts No. 16 Purdue in its home finale and can boost its 1-6 mark in true road games against Minnesota and Northwestern, who are ranked 21st and 40th in RPI, respectively.

“I think that the adversity that we’ve had in some of our losses has helped us to see that there’s a focus and just staying on task is more important than anything else,” Beilein said. “And stay on task means after a win or a loss, you try and grow from it and pay a lot of attention to what’s next.

“Six games left, one at a time. We got our work cut out for us with only two home games and those are great teams, so I think it’s pretty clear to them what’s in front of them and what they have to do to get there.”

Koenig ruled out

Michigan caught a break as Wisconsin senior point guard Bronson Koenig was sidelined for Thursday’s game with a leg injury.

Koenig was listed as day-to-day after sitting out two practices this week before a final determination was made Thursday morning.

Freshman guard D’Mitrik Trice, the younger brother of former Michigan State standout Travis Trice, received his first career start in Koenig’s place. It marked the first time this season the Badgers have used a different starting lineup.

Koenig scored a team-high 16 points in Wisconsin’s 68-64 win on Jan. 17 in Madison, including 10 straight in the second half to wipe out a six-point Michigan lead with four minutes left.

Over the past four games against Michigan, Koenig has shot 54.5 percent from the field (18-for-33) and averaged 15 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

Slam dunks

Beilein was one of 16 coaches to advance to the second round of the Infiniti Coaches Charity Challenge. If Beilein wins, Infiniti will donate $100,000 to The ChadTough Foundation, which supports research and raises awareness for pediatric brain tumors.

The final four will be announced on Feb. 26 and voting is allowed once per day at ESPN.com/Infiniti.

… Michigan hosted “Social Media Night” during its game against Wisconsin to highlight the program’s social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.