One step forward, one step back.
It’s the dangerous dance Michigan is performing in Big Ten play as it teeters for admittance into the Big Dance.
Yet, Michigan is on the NCAA Tournament list — at least for now — according to updated weekly projections by CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. Palm has the Wolverines in the 68-team field as No. 9 seed, while Lunardi has Michigan as one of the last four teams in.
As Michigan (13-7, 3-4 Big Ten) looked to strengthen its case in Thursday night’s matchup against Indiana, it’s no secret what’s been preventing the Wolverines from taking the next step.
"I think it just all starts on the defensive end,” senior forward Zak Irvin said. “Our offense has been there really all season, all Big Ten season long. As long as we'll be able to do that on the defensive end, be able to stop players, be able to get all the defensive rebounds…we'll be in good shape."
Despite ranking 174th in the nation in scoring at 74.3 points, Michigan ranks 17th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, which measures points scored per 100 possessions, at 118.3 points. It also ranks 56th in the nation in field-goal percentage at 47.3 percent.
It’s the type of efficiency that comes from the Wolverines not relying on a one- or two-man show. Four starters are averaging over 10 points in scoring — Irvin (14.5), senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. (12.6), sophomore center Moritz Wagner (11.9) and redshirt sophomore forward D.J. Wilson (10.7) — with junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and sixth man Duncan Robinson also capable of posting double digits.
Defensively, though, Michigan ranks 154th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency at 103.6 points. But after an abysmal start where it allowed an average of 80.4 points on 53.4 percent shooting (55.3 percent on 3-pointers) over its first five Big Ten contests, Michigan appears to finally be turning a corner.
Over the past two games, the Wolverines held Wisconsin to 68 points on 45.3 percent shooting — both below its season averages — and Illinois to 57 points on 45.8 percent shooting, including 16.7 percent on 3-pointers, with 17 turnovers.
While shoring up the defense has been an ongoing process, finally seeing the work pay off on the court has increased the team’s confidence level, Wagner said.
“I think it's a mentality thing. Against Wisconsin, against Illinois, I think we're all just very locked in and guarding them,” Wagner said. “There was a certain motivation to guard people better than we did in the past. I think we're doing a better job now and it's on us to come together and improve."
After watching the film, Michigan coach John Beilein has noticed the progress but also minor improvements that still need to be made, particularly on dribble drives.
“The slightest change can change a team — whether it's this team or not — with just that level of intensity, that level of togetherness, that level to be physical on defense,” Beilein said. “We're trying to continue to just try and stay in front (on drives), but we're talking of just sliding your feet might be a big difference in the season.”
Waiting in the wings
Freshman center Austin Davis has been receiving rave reviews from both Beilein and his teammates for his development over the season.
Davis (6-foot-10, 240 pounds) was in contention for the third big man spot behind Wagner and senior Mark Donnal heading into the year, but opted to redshirt after fellow freshman Jon Teske earned the role.
“He's improving a lot,” Wagner said. “He has improved a lot over the season and has become a very good defender. Very athletic, a force on the glass. It's not easy to get around him, so he's going to be a good player for us.”
Teske has recorded eight rebounds, five points and three blocks in 44 minutes over 13 game appearances.
Prior to Thursday’s game against Indiana, Michigan will receive a custom-made, eight-foot surfboard to celebrate the team’s upcoming appearance in the 2017 Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
It will be Michigan’s sixth appearance in the tournament, which will also include Cal, LSU, Marquette, Notre Dame, VCU and Wichita State.