Five things Michigan must do to secure spot in NCAA Tournament

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

It’s starting to look like November again.

The smiles are back. The shots are falling. Junior forward Isaiah Livers is in the lineup.

Michigan has won five of its last six games.

Following Michigan’s 89-65 rout of Indiana on Sunday, the Wolverines have won five of six and three straight games for the first time since they rolled through the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.

“I feel like we’re back at the beginning of the year a little bit,” sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. said. “We’re all so connected, trusting each other, knocking down shots, trusting in our game. It just feels great.

“We want to keep it going.”

After laboring through a four-game slide in January, the tropical vibes have returned at the right time for Michigan as it looks to sustain its late-season push and continue building momentum.

With March quickly approaching, here are five things the Wolverines must do in the stretch run to stay on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble:

Reach at least 18 wins

Only one team has received an at-large bid with a record of fewer than four games above .500 over the last 25 years. That happened in 2001 when Georgia got into the Big Dance with a 16-14 mark.

But given the strength of the Big Ten this season, CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm noted that could “create a circumstance where an 18-15 team crawls into the field.”

As of Monday, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent projection has Michigan (16-9, 7-7 Big Ten) as a No. 8 seed and among 11 Big Ten teams in the field. Palm has Michigan as a No. 6 seed and 10 Big Ten teams in, with Purdue being one of his first four left out.

Bracket Matrix, a composite of NCAA Tournament projections across the internet, also has 11 Big Ten teams in, with Michigan being a composite No. 7 seed.

With the cutoff point for an at-large bid typically set at four games above .500, that means Michigan will have at least seven chances — the final six regular-season games and one Big Ten tournament game — to pick up two more wins.

On top of that, the Wolverines also will have at least four shots to add to their five Quadrant 1 victories and boost their resume with trips to Rutgers, Purdue, Ohio State and Maryland.

Avoid the injury bug

Coach Juwan Howard has stated several times that if Michigan is going to make a run, it’s going to need luck on its side. And by that, he means good health for every player on the roster.

Isaiah Livers

That especially goes for Livers. He already has missed nine games this season with two lower-body injuries and faced another scare on Sunday when an Indiana player fell into the back of his right leg. Livers exited with a twisted ankle, returned to the game briefly and has been ruled day to day.

“I really got nervous,” Johns said. “He’s good. He just had a little tweak, but he’s good.”

It’s no secret the Wolverines can ill afford to lose Livers again. They’re 12-4 with him in the lineup, and he makes a world of difference on both ends of the court.

Michigan is 3-0 since Livers’ return from his second injury on Feb. 8. Since that date, the Wolverines are ranked No. 6 in adjusted offensive efficiency (1.25 points per possession), No. 18 in adjusted defensive efficiency (0.873 points per possession) and the No. 3 team in the nation by

“Obviously with him in there they're a different team. I mean, there's no question,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said last week of Livers. “He gives them another guy who can put points on the board, who can put it on the floor, who can shoot…He's a tough matchup.”

Over the past six games, starting with the Jan. 28 win at Nebraska, Michigan ranks third in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency (0.873 points per possession) and effective field-goal percentage defense (42.7 percent) behind Minnesota and Maryland.

Maintain defense

In addition to a healthy Livers, Michigan’s recent surge has been fueled by its defense — one that has gone from one of the worst to one of the best in the Big Ten.

Over the past six games, starting with the Jan. 28 win at Nebraska, Michigan ranks third in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency (0.873 points per possession) and effective field-goal percentage defense (42.7 percent) behind Minnesota and Maryland. Those marks also rank Nos. 7 and 13, respectively, in the nation.

According to junior guard Eli Brooks, the Wolverines realized they had to make changes defensively during last month’s rough patch. That has led to a focus on limiting one-on-one attacks and making opponents play in crowded space.

“I think the (recent) strides are coming on the defensive end, really gapping up on people and paying attention to the scouting report and being more detailed,” Brooks said.

The turnaround comes at a key time for the Wolverines, who will close conference play with four of their final six games on the road, starting Wednesday at Rutgers.

“Defense always travels, offense sometimes travels,” Brooks said. “Being able to rely on our defense (is crucial) when we’re not making shots like early on at Northwestern when it could’ve got out of hand if they made shots. Being able to stay in the game when we’re not making shots is big.”

Michigan center Jon Teske has been mired in a four-game funk where he has averaged 5.5 points on 23.5 percent shooting in 28.3 minutes.

Get Teske on track

In order for Michigan to be at its best, it’s going to need senior center Jon Teske to regain his rhythm.

Teske has been mired in a four-game funk where he has averaged 5.5 points on 23.5 percent shooting in 28.3 minutes. During the slump, Teske is 8-for-34 on 2-point field goals and has had a hard time finishing around the basket.

That was most evident in the win at Northwestern where he missed his six shots at the rim, including a dunk attempt, before making his first field goal. According to Howard, double teams, getting knocked off balance and shots rimming out have played a role in Teske’s troubles.

“He's on everyone's scouting report,” Howard said. “They double him for a reason because they do not want to see Jon score baskets because they know he's capable of having big nights if you play him one-on-one.”

While Teske has struggled on offense, redshirt junior center Austin Davis has flourished. Over the past five games, Davis is shooting 18-for-21 from the field and averaging 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 12.6 minutes off the bench. If Michigan is able to get both big men in a groove at the same time, that would present a big problem for opponents.

Stay confident

One of the most common words that has been used by the Wolverines this season is confidence.

It’s a topic Howard has talked about time and again, and it’s been something he has focused on injecting into every player.

The Wolverines played with confidence in the Bahamas and it showed. It was also on full display Sunday when Michigan’s offense was humming along.

“We’ve all been getting in the gym like crazy working on our game,” Johns said. “Confidence was a big key. It’s been working out for us well.”

However, it’s also been noticeable when the Wolverines have lacked confidence. For example, they were hesitant to shoot at times in their road loss at Michigan State and let misses deter them in the home loss to Penn State.

But when the Wolverines trust and believe in themselves for 40 minutes, “they’re one of the best teams in the country,” as Indiana coach Archie Miller pointed out, and can compete with anyone.

“I feel like everything is clicking,” Brooks said, “and everybody feels confident about their shots.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins