Unless something unprecedented happens, Michigan's season is over.
Michigan needed to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals to put themselves in a superb position to earn an invitation to the NIT. Michigan was on the precipice of the NIT cut-off at best. The Wolverines were a No. 6 seed in NYC Buckets' projection and not included in DRatings' field. A win over an elite team like Wisconsin should have propelled Michigan into the field, but, because there will be more regular-season champions from other conferences that will steal NIT auto-bids, a loss would squeeze Michigan out. Plus, the NIT never before has invited a team with a losing record against D-I teams, and a loss would give Michigan a 15-16 record against D-I teams.
However, the upset wasn't meant to be.
Michigan had one of its better performances of the season and threw everything it had at Wisconsin, but the Badgers were just too much to overcome as they outlasted Michigan, 71-60. Michigan made the Badgers sweat at the end, too. With four minutes left, Ricky Doyle (12 points on 6-6 FG) put in a layup to cut Wisconsin's lead to 58-56. If Michigan could have strung together a few stops, an upset would have been possible. However, Wisconsin won loose balls following misses on back-to-back possessions, which led to a three-pointer and two free throws from Sam Dekker (17 points, six boards, six assists). The sequence pushed Wisconsin's lead to seven points, and Michigan couldn't recover.
Until then, Michigan was neck and neck with Wisconsin and, at one point, far out ahead. Similar to yesterday against Illinois, Michigan started fast out of the gates. In the first 12 minutes, which were mostly undisturbed by whistles as both teams played cleanly, Michigan sprinted out to a 22-13 lead thanks to a 12-2 run. Led by Spike Albrecht (10 points) and Zak Irvin (21 points, 11 boards, three assists, three steals), Michigan was patient on offense, biding their time and waiting for good shots to present themselves. Though most of these looks were from mid-range or three due to Wisconsin's pack-line defense, Albrecht and Irvin were making them count, combining to score 18 of the team's first 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Michigan couldn't have asked for a better start.
But Dekker wouldn't permit Michigan to pull away. As one of the Big Ten's best finishers at the rim, Dekker attacked the hoop as much as he could and poured in four shots inside of 10 feet to score eight straight points for Wisconsin and cut Michigan's lead to 24-19. Then, a few minutes later, Bronson Koenig (12 points) ended the first half with a bang for the Badgers. Until then, Michigan's defensive strategy of manning up and doubling down when National Player of the Year favorite Frank Kaminsky (16 points, 12 boards) received the ball in the post had been mildly effective. But, on back-to-back possessions in the final two minutes of the opening half, doubling Kaminsky meant leaving Koenig -- a 40-percent three-point shooter -- open on the perimeter. Koenig received the ball and buried two triples, capping an 18-4 run and giving Wisconsin a 31-26 halftime lead.
Michigan stopped the bleeding in the second half as Irvin caught fire and did everything in his power to keep Michigan within striking distance. On one possession, he drove into the lane, sucked in a second defender, and then dropped a wraparound pass back to Max Bielfeldt in front of the rim for an easy layup. On the next two possessions, he drilled contested mid-range jumpers. But this only prevented Wisconsin from running away with the game because their trio of big men -- Kaminsky, Dekker, and Nigel Hayes (11 points, nine boards) -- were eating Michigan alive down low with layup after layup.
However, Michigan received a spark when Kaminsky made multiple uncharacteristic mistakes in a few short minutes. After Kaminsky missed two bunnies in a row, Michigan harassed him into back-to-back turnovers, which led to an Aubrey Dawkins put-back slam and a Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman layup in transition. Suddenly, Michigan owned a 44-41 lead with 12:28 remaining, and Kaminsky was put on the bench as a result.
The problem, though, was that Kaminsky's replacement, reserve Duje Dukan, gave the Badgers a spark of their own. Though only a 29-percent three-point shooter, Dukan responded to Michigan's mini-run by hitting two triples and blowing by the defense for a two-handed jam. His eight points gave Wisconsin a lead they wouldn't give back to Michigan thanks to two Kaminsky layups and the aforementioned loose-ball sequences.
Though Wisconsin made many critical plays down the stretch, the elephant in the room is the one-sided officiating. Too many times did Wisconsin earn the benefit of a call or no call that left many scratching their head. There was the charge that Michigan drew on Dekker in the first half that wasn't called. There was Wisconsin not being whistled for tackling Bielfeldt as he tried to corral an offensive rebound. There was the refs indicating that a Wisconsin foul was on the floor even though Irvin was in the act of shooting. There were many others. With three minutes left in the game, Wisconsin had been called for only three fouls and finished with five when the final buzzer sounded -- the fewest by any team in a conference tournament game in the past 10 years. It's hard enough to beat a team like Wisconsin when it's five on five. It's nearly impossible when the officials favor the Badgers on almost every call. And it was only fitting that officials capped their sub-par effort by assessing John Beilein a crappy technical in the waning moments.
Nonetheless, Michigan lost, and the season should be over, which is unfortunate because Michigan just was starting to click on all cylinders even with Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton sidelined with injuries. With Irvin looking like an All-Big Ten-caliber player, Albrecht acting like a top-tier Big Ten point guard, and others finding their roles, it seemed like Michigan was ready to make a magical run in this Big Ten Tournament. If Michigan had faced any other team in this game, I would wager that Beilein and his staff would be scouting an opponent for tomorrow's semis right now. But, because the team Michigan faced was Wisconsin, the Wolverines are packing their bags for Ann Arbor.
This should mark the end of what's been a disappointing season for Michigan. In the preseason, Michigan was a top-25 team, and an NCAA Tournament appearance was assumed. But it's funny how things don't work out when a team loses five players to the NBA earlier than expected in two seasons and then two of its best players to injuries.
However, these past few weeks should give fans hope. Once LeVert went down, what was most important was that Michigan used these final weeks to develop the roster, particularly the unheralded freshmen, Dawkins and Abdur-Rahkman. And that's exactly what happened. Though we don't know yet if LeVert will return for his senior season, next year looks promising with a stable of talented guards and wings in Walton, Albrecht, Irvin, Abdur-Rahkman, and Dawkins, and three bodies that can play center in Doyle, Mark Donnal, and D.J. Wilson. The question no longer is whether Michigan will have talent next year. It's now how Beilein will find enough minutes to play everyone.
That's not a bad problem to have if the season is indeed over.