If you're reading this, you're probably a Michigan fan. And, if you're a Michigan fan, you've probably spent the entire past week cruising around the Internet seeking every morsel of information you could find regarding whether San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh would leave the NFL for Michigan at season's end.
I understand. It's been a hot topic all week. On Sunday, with a loss to the Seattle Seahawks and the Detroit Lions' win over the Minnesota Vikings, the 49ers were officially eliminated from playoff contention, which meant that back-channel discussions between Michigan and Harbaugh would heat up. And, oh, have they. On Wednesday, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the Wolverines had offered Harbaugh a whopping six-year, $48 million contract that'd make him the highest paid coach in all of football. Though FOX Sports' Bruce Feldman has since reported these numbers are inaccurate, all anyone has wanted to discuss is HARBAUGH HARBAUGH HARBAUGH.
But all of this gossip about Harbaugh and Michigan's coaching search has overshadowed what is an extremely important basketball game between Michigan and SMU tomorrow.
There's no denying it: John Beilein's young Wolverines are reeling. They're mired in a three-game losing streak, which is the program's longest since Stu Douglass altered the trajectory of Michigan basketball with this three-pointer against Michigan State. And what's most concerning is the nature of these three losses. In a span of one week, Michigan was outgunned by NJIT in what should be the most shocking upset in college basketball this season, shut down by the lanky 2-3 zone deployed by Eastern Michigan, and obliterated by national championship contending Arizona in the desert.
Thus, Michigan owns a 6-4 record, but this isn't the same 6-4 record Michigan owned at this juncture last season. The Wolverines demonstrated they were still a top team despite the losses last year. There's little shame in falling in tight games to top-20 teams like Arizona, Duke, and Iowa State, especially when two of those occurred outside Ann Arbor, which is why the Wolverines still hovered around the KenPom Top 20 despite their lackluster record. This hasn't been the case at all this year. Being upset at home by two inferior teams before being run out of the gym by Arizona has caused Michigan to plummet from No. 20 on KenPom all the way down to No. 61. That's very alarming.
So is Michigan as bad as its results from the previous three games indicate? I don't believe so. Michigan is better than the No. 61 team in the nation. Early in the season, the Wolverines resembled a top-25 team. They notched two top-50 wins over Syracuse and Oregon, dominated lesser foes, and allowed a game against still unbeaten Villanova to slip through their fingers. These past few results seem to be extreme outliers of the negative variety. Not every game will see Michigan brick almost every perimeter shot, face an opponent that can't miss from deep, or face an opponent that presents the worst possible matchup. I expect that Michigan will regress to the mean in the near future.
But I cannot in good conscience make the same prediction I made last season at this time. Last year, when I wrote for Maize & Go Blue, I confidently stated that Michigan was still a top-25 team and would prove so during the Big Ten slate. What happened? The Wolverines won the conference by the largest margin this decade. This season, though these last three losses seem to be outliers, they still stem from deep-rooted issues that may plague Michigan all season, like, for example, Michigan's inability to attack the rim. Maybe the Wolverines will fix these issues and flourish during conference play, but the more likely scenario is that they will be fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives.
This is why tomorrow's matchup against SMU is so pivotal. For starters, if Michigan wants to punch its ticket to the Big Dance in March, it needs to add a quality non-conference win to its resume rather than a fifth loss. The Mustangs are a formidable foe. They're currently No. 46 on KenPom and riding a five-game winning streak that includes victories over two top-100 teams in Wyoming and UC Santa Barbara. And their best big man, Markus Kennedy, who made his presence felt on both ends of the court last year, may be making his season debut now that his first-semester suspension is over.
And, secondly, though a loss to SMU wouldn't be considered a bad one, it's one Michigan can ill-afford. Not only must Michigan avoid further losses, which will continue to sink its NCAA Tournament hopes, the Wolverines need a confidence boost right now. There's no doubt that these players are feeling down after what may have been the worst week of their athletic careers. A win against a solid SMU squad would help them pull out of this funk and be in much better spirits as they prepare for the start of the Big Ten season.
So, if you're a Michigan fan, try to pry yourself away from the computer and all potential updates regarding Michigan's pursuit of Harbaugh and tune into ESPN2 at noon tomorrow. Otherwise, you'll miss a game that very well may impact whether Michigan will have the opportunity to make a third straight deep postseason run in March.