UM faces uphill climb in Big Ten tournament

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Michigan coach John Beilein

Ann Arbor — Michigan knows the task, and it is daunting.

The Wolverines have to go to the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis and win at least two games, including one against the regular-season champion that made mincemeat out of Michigan earlier this year, if it's to have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament.

And that's to say nothing of winning a first game against a Northwestern team that has won three straight, and led for the heavy majority of the game at Michigan last month, before losing down the stretch.

The Wolverines (20-11) and Wildcats (20-11) play at noon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, with the winner advancing to meet No. 1-seeded Indiana (25-6) at noon Friday.

The No. 1 seed hasn't lost its first game of the Big Ten tournament since 2003, and has made the Big Ten tournament championship game 10 out of the last 12 years.

"Right now, it's win the game," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "You've gotta find a way.

"Whatever it takes."

Michigan, losers of four of five to fall from inside the bubble to on the bubble to on the outside looking in, may have 20 wins, but that includes an opening win over Division II Northern Michigan, which the NCAA Selection Committee doesn't count.

Even if it did count, it's not like 20 wins is automatic, even in a power conference. Since 2005, according to collegerpi.com, 37 power conference teams have been left out of the NCAA Tournament despite reaching 20 wins.

Much of that has to do with a team's RPI, which factors in such things as strength of schedule and offense and defense efficiency, among other considerations.

UM�s Irvin wants to excel back home again in Indiana

Michigan is No. 67 in the RPI, and, according to collegerpi.com, the worst RPI team to earn an at-large bid since the RPI was used in selecting the field in 2005 was Southern California, also at No. 67, in 2011.

It has wins over three teams in the top 25 of the RPI — Maryland (12), Purdue (16) and Texas (24), but two of those were at home and the other on a neutral court, and the NCAA Tournament is much more impressed by road wins. Michigan lost at Maryland and Purdue. A win over Indiana in the quarterfinals would give Michigan a fourth, and could be looked at highly by the Selection Committee, given Indiana will, essentially, be the home team in Indianapolis.

In Michigan's other 11 games against top-100 RPI teams, it went 0-11.

Now, you see why the Wolverines have much work to do.

"Some (losses) have been just, we'll be on the wrong end of the luck stick," Derrick Walton Jr. said. "Sometimes, it's things we can control.

"From now until the final game of the season, whenever that may be, you can just expect this team to play with a bigger chip on our shoulder."

The No. 8/9 seed winner hasn't beaten the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament since 2002 and 2003, when top-seeded Wisconsin lost its first game both years.

That's not to saw the 8/9-1 games have been blowouts. In fact, many of them have been super close, especially recently, and that makes plenty of sense.

In the power conference, unlike at the mid-major level, there's no pressure for a No. 1 seed to win its conference tournament. It's already going to make the NCAA Tournament; the conference tournament serves as only a potential seeding boster.

Meanwhile, the 8 and 9 usually are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives, so it's not unusual to see the better team come out flat and the lesser team come out feisty and determined.

Then again, this is an Indiana team that went on an unbelievable 29-0 run when it played Michigan this season.

"At this time, anything can happen," Walton said.

Michigan missed the NCAA Tournament last year, amid a flurry of injuries.

The injury bug struck again this year, in a big way, knocking out the two seniors, Caris Levert and Spike Albrecht. And Zak Irvin, obviously, isn't the same player he was before having offseason back surgery. How much injuries should be used as an excuse is debatable; it's worth noting, Indiana lost star James Blackmon for the season in January, and still will raise a banner.

Now, if the Wolverines can't get on a roll in Indy, they'll have missed the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years for the first time in Beilein's nine-year tenure as Michigan's coach.

Despite a championship-game appearance in 2013, followed by an Elite Eight showing the next year, Michigan fans are starting to get restless, some critical of the lackluster defense the Wolverines play, others harsh on Beilein's recruiting prowess — Beilein has, admittedly, played it safer since seeing Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nik Stauskas all leave early for the NBA; they'd be seniors this season — and still others curious why Michigan can't put together a dynamic big-man duo.

Mark Donnal has emerged, big time, especially in Big Ten play, and might be the chief reason Michigan isn't already completely eliminated from NCAA Tournament consideration, but Max Bielfeldt was sent packing after last year, landed at Indiana and just won Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year. That stings.

Nobody's suggesting Beilein is on the hot seat — interim athletic director Jim Hackett signed him to an extension before the season that takes him through 2020-21 — but the seat can't be as comfortable as it was just three years ago. There's also a new AD coming on the job this month, Warde Manuel, who knows good basketball, coming from Connecticut. He'll clearly spend a lot of time early on the job evaluating all of Michigan's programs.

Two wins in Indy this week could change the narrative. Michigan almost surely doesn't have the horses to go deep into March even if it gets into the NCAA Tournament, but a bid would make for a much more comfortable summer leading into next season, when the Wolverines will have a much more veteran, tested team, mixed with an intriguing recruiting class that features a star point guard from Ohio, Xavier Simpson, and big man from Michigan, Austin Davis.

"We're 0-0," Beilein said. "Let's see what we can do."

Five keys for Michigan

* Against Northwestern, find a way to contain senior Alex Olah, who has scored in double figures all six times it has played Michigan — including 19 points in the game this season, and 25 and 22 in the two games last season.

* Michigan needs to make a few 3s early in the game, if just to gain some confidence. The Wolverines' 3-point shooting, so good early in the season, has gone extremely cold, especially in five of the last six games.

* Make the extra pass, which should lead to much better shots. Too often in these last five games, four of which are losses, Michigan has taken ill-advised shots, many early in the shot clock. This means, show some poise.

* Play some defense. It's been abysmal at times this season, but there have been flashes, like in the win over Purdue. Michigan needs to channel that effort

* Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr. Too often, one is hot and the other is cold. Lately, both have been cold. That can't be the case in Indianapolis.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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9 Northwestern vs. 8 Michigan

Tip-off: Noon Thursday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ

Records: Northwestern 20-11, Michigan 20-11

Outlook: The teams met once during the regular season, a 72-63 Michigan win at home on Feb. 24. The Wildcats actually led for much of that game. ... Northwestern finished the regular season with three consecutive wins, while Michigan lost four of five. ... The winner advances to face top-seeded Indiana at noon Friday.