UM controls destiny with 2 regular-season games left

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
"The situation we're in now, it makes you lick your chops," Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr. said.

Ann Arbor — Fans might be grumbling, a bit.

But if you had told Michigan coach John Beilein before the season that his two seniors, Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, would be mostly non-factors, and the Wolverines still would be in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid, he'd have taken it.

"I mean, there's not too many teams in the league — and this is a credit to these kids — that could lose two guys like that and be on the bubble right now," Beilein said Friday. "It's good to be in that."

Last season, when the injuries started, so did the losses — and things snowballed out of control.

This season, after Albrecht was lost for the season early on, and Levert has missed almost all of Big Ten play, the Wolverines dug deep, beat some good teams and now control their own destiny with two regular-season games to go.

By most accounts, Michigan needs to win one of the last two — either at red-hot Wisconsin on Sunday, or at home next week against Iowa — to seal a bid.

Anything less might require a pretty Big Ten tournament run, even if Michigan has its share of good wins (Texas, Maryland, Purdue) and just one bad loss (Ohio State).

This is certain: Don't expect Beilein to be doing any public lobbying.

"I'm not doing any lobbying or doing anything," he said, with a smile. "The people on that committee are not listening to John Beilein or anybody else.
"I've got great respect for the people in that room, and if we're selected, we deserve to be in there."

Most Bracketology boards have Michigan in, as of Friday — at 20-9, 10-6 in the Big Ten. But two losses in the final two games, and that likely changes, big time.

It's not an easy task, especially Wisconsin, which got off to a horrific start, but have turned things around in a big way under interim head coach Greg Gard, Bo Ryan's preferred successor. The Badgers have won nine of their last 10, with wins over every single Big Ten heavyweight.

Wisconsin went to the championship game last season, but lost Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker to the NBA — both were first-round picks. Nigel Hayes returned, but the adjustment, to new players and eventually a new coach, was slow.

It's picked up steam, massively, and Wisconsin, if it's not in already, might clinch an NCAA Tournament bid with a win Sunday, as well.

"The situation we're in now, it makes you lick your chops," Derrick Walton Jr. said. "We think we'll be where we want to be when it's all said and done.
"Everybody do their job, and the rest will take care of itself."

Michigan has been a bubble team several times before under Beilein, but it's been awhile.

The Wolverines roared into the NCAA Tournament in 2013, advancing to the national championship game, and made the Elite Eight the next year.
Last year, there was no bubble. It had burst long before this time.

How's he handling the stress?

"My stress level never goes down. It is always up. The Elon games, and the games early in the season, that's the way I live my life," Beilein said. "And it's really an unfortunate part of my personality after over 1,000 games. But that's who I am.

Before the Northwestern game earlier this week, Beilein made a point to talk to his team about the NCAA Tournament implications.

The Wolverines trailed most of the game, but hung on for the season-saving win.

Beilein doesn't think he'll need to bring that up again.

The players know. Everybody knows.

"Wisconsin will be a top-25 team, probably, come Monday," Beilein said. "Beating a top-25 team on the road has huge implications."

LeVert dilemma

LeVert wasn't going to practice Friday or Saturday, and while he'll travel to Madison, he's unlikely to play against Wisconsin.

Beilein has found himself in a tricky situation. He has said all along that LeVert (lower left leg) would be the deciding factor on when he returns, but given Michigan is in must-win mode, it won't be so easy to play him if LeVert gives a thumbs-up. After all, LeVert won't be anywhere close to 100 percent.
And Michigan's margin for error is small.

"I want to give him every benefit of the doubt. If he wants to play, he's gonna get to play," Beilein said. "As long as I can."

Beilein pointed out he wants to be fair to his star senior, but also fair to the rest of the team.

Michigan has five days off between the Wisconsin and Iowa games, plus has spring break next week. Beilein said that will allow the team to experiment with LeVert and see how much he can do, if he's pain-free, of course.



Michigan at Wisconsin

Tip-off: 6 Sunday, Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ

Records: Michigan 20-9, (10-6 Big Ten), Wisconsin 18-10, (10-5)

Outlook: A huge game for two teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble. ... The Badgers have won nine of their last 10, including wins over Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland and Iowa. ... Nigel Hayes (16.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Ethan Happ (11.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg) lead the Badgers, who lost five times before the conference season began.