How Michigan Makes the NCAA Tournament (Hint: They Probably Still Don't)

If last week Michigan basketball was given a 7-step program to the NCAA tournament, they fulfilled steps one and two last week with home wins against Northwestern and Indiana.  That said, those were the two easy steps, and while it's hard to downplay any win, the road gets significantly tougher this week.  On Wednesday, Michigan takes on Illinois at their version of Assembly Hall followed by a visit to Iowa.  The rest of the schedule after this week includes a home game against Wisconsin, a road matchup against Minnesota, and the home finale against Michigan State.  Of the remaining 5 games, Michigan is going to need to win 3 to get to the 9-9 conference record that I believe puts them firmly on the bubble.

But that is probably getting ahead of ourselves.  The first game on this run that gets really dicey happens Thursday against Illinois:

Big Ten Standing: 4th

RPI: 34th

KenPom:  15th

Despite only 6-6 in Big Ten play, Illinois maintains the 4th position, and sports an impressive KenPom rating.  Michigan, meanwhile, sits at 54th in KenPom ratings and 58th in RPI.  Michigan has been impressive on the road (Michigan State), mediocre on the road (Penn State), and really bad on the road (Indiana) this season.  Needless to say, Michigan is likely going to have to be somewhere between the impressive and an unknown gear above that to beat Illinois.  Michigan has some nice road wins, but the opportunity on Wednesday against Illinois to show the selection committee they can play on the road is a very big one indeed.

The only game that Michigan is favored in during this last stretch is Michigan State, and even then Michigan State is probably undervalued right now due to their woeful performances of late.  I don't think that Michigan is going to beat Wisconsin, even at home, which means that they're going to have to beat Iowa and either Minnesota or Illinois on the road if they're going to get those 3 wins.  These past three games have given the Wolverines some confidence though, and a greater FG% and better intensity on defense has followed.  Against Indiana, Michigan shot 53.3% beyond the arc and forced 13 turnovers (just don't mention free throws).  The continued maturation of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darius Morris combined with Jordan Morgan running the floor the way he's been doing has put the Wolverines in contention, but they'll need to stay consistently productive against Illinois to have a chance.

A win at Illinois changes "they probably don't" to "they might."  A loss means they've still got a chance, but the path probably includes a win against Wisconsin to get their resume where it needs to be.

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