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UM goes ‘from frying pan to fire’ down stretch

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Signature win on a neutral court? Check.

Signature win at home? Check.

Signature win on the road? That’s on the to-do list.

As Michigan gains steam following Thursday’s win over No. 11 Wisconsin, the Wolverines still have their work cut out to bolster their bid for an NCAA Tournament spot.

Most glaring is Michigan’s 1-6 mark in true road games. The Wolverines picked up their first win at Indiana last weekend after failing to capitalize on earlier opportunities — stumbling in overtime at Iowa, falling apart late at Wisconsin and coming up short at Michigan State. They were also competitive at UCLA before running out of gas and at South Carolina despite their woeful offensive struggles.

But with four of its final five regular-season games on the road, Michigan will have several chances to strengthen its case — and perhaps its most important — Sunday at Minnesota, which ranks 23rd in RPI.

‘We battled’: UM bumps Badgers, gets big resume boost

"For us, we just look at it as a new season every game. We don't really look at the big picture that much, we look at the next game,” sophomore center Moritz Wagner said. “It's kind of easy when you know you got to win every game. It doesn't matter who it’s against.

“We always got to go into the game and say that's a must-win for us. We're with our backs against the wall and we still are."

After snapping back-to-back-to-back skids — first win in Bloomington since 2009 and first victories over Michigan State and Wisconsin since 2014 — Michigan heads to Minnesota where history is in its favor. The Wolverines have won nine straight against the Golden Gophers and the last six meetings in Minneapolis.

History aside, though, Michigan enters the matchup on a high, riding the team’s first three-game win streak in roughly two months when it closed out nonconference play with three straight victories. A mixture of opponents hitting fewer 3-pointers, different Wolverines stepping up and senior guard Derrick Walton Jr.’s emergence have sparked the recent surge.

After Michigan’s defense was torched and allowed teams to shoot a blistering 48.9 percent from 3-point range through the first nine Big Ten games, that number has drastically dropped to 23.5 percent over the last three contests.

On the other end, Walton has led the Wolverines with his inspired play, scoring 20 points against Michigan State, 25 against Indiana and controlling the game against Wisconsin with five points and eight assists.

More importantly, Michigan has proven it can win without needing senior forward Zak Irvin and Walton to both go off on the same night. While Irvin was stuck in a four-game funk, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson and Xavier Simpson all stepped up and provided an offensive punch against the Spartans, combining for 33 points.

Derrick Walton Jr.

Against the Hoosiers, Walton shouldered the load but it was Robinson and D.J. Wilson who hit big basket after big basket, highlighted by Robinson’s crowd-silencing 3-pointer with 13:05 left, to stave off Indiana. Then against the Badgers, Mark Donnal had a pivotal second-half block, Abdur-Rahkman scored six straight to help wipe out an eight-point second-half deficit and Wagner hit the dagger 3-pointer to seal it.

"You don't want to say you're peaking at the right time but it's not a bad time to be peaking around this time,” Walton said. “The most important basketball is right now and the stakes are a lot higher. I think we're on a three-win streak and it feels great. All I can attest it to is guys are playing with more passion and it's showing on the court.”

Sustaining that fervor against a streaking Minnesota team, which has won four straight and ranks 15th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, will be vital for Michigan in its quest for quality road wins.

“If you looked at this stretch of six games we just had (against Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin)…these teams have traditionally been in the NCAA Tournament,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Every one of them has been in almost every year since we've been here and now it's the new wave of teams that are really good — Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska all on the road. Only home game we got is a team I think can win the national championship, Purdue.

“It goes from the frying pan to the fire right now because it's on the road and that great crowd we had (against Wisconsin), we're going to see in Minnesota because they're excited there. We're going to have to go in there and play better than we did (against Wisconsin), that's for sure."

UM TOURNAMENT OUTLOOK

Remaining games:

Sunday at Minnesota (RPI: 23)

Wednesday at Rutgers (151)

Feb. 25 vs. Purdue (19)

March 1 at Northwestern (39)

March 5 at Nebraska (83)

Resume:

Best wins: vs. Michigan State (42), vs. Wisconsin (26), SMU (20)

Worst losses: vs. Ohio State (64), at Illinois (70), at Iowa (102)

Michigan at Minnesota

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Sunday, Williams Arena, Minneapolis

TV/radio: BTN/950 AM

Records: Michigan 17-9, 7-6 Big Ten; Minnesota 19-7, 7-6

Outlook: Michigan has won nine straight in the series and 13 of the past 14 meetings. …Minnesota has won four in a row and leads the Big Ten in blocked shots at 7.3 per game. Junior G Nate Mason (15.1 points) and freshman G Amir Coffey (12.4 points) lead five Gophers averaging double digits in scoring.