Michigan hoops kicks off its postseason in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday night in Chicago in the final game of the evening when they take on the Iowa Hawkeyes, a team that they lost to in pretty sizable fashion earlier this season on the road.
The Wolverines are not exactly scuffling heading into the madness, but morale among the fanbase seems lower than most years due to the fact that they were swept by Michigan State and lost out on a share of the regular season conference title, as well as the fact we have not seen this team look like a true national title contender since non-conference play.
There have been flashes of brilliance, but there has also been a whole lot of frustration. This team does not shoot the basketball well and do not have a lead dog offensively. The defense has been stout all year long and is elite, but some lapses in key moments of their biggest games have been disappointing to see.
Despite all of this, the Wolverines still have an overall impressive body of work and a record of 26-5 heading into the Big Ten Tournament. A good showing this weekend in Chicago probably has them in line for a three seed. A great weekend, and a third-straight tournament championship, could get them back in two seed territory.
So what does this team need to do to inspire confidence once again that John Beilein’s guys can go on a deep run?
Here’s a handful of things I’d like to see out of them this weekend.
- Charles Matthews returns: We still are not sure if Matthews will return this weekend, but I assume Michigan would not bring him back if he was not going to be able to have a big impact on the game. His offensive woes seemed to be starting to subside when he hurt his ankle, so it would be interesting to see what his impact can be there. Whether shots fall or not, he is so important to defending the wing.
- Create good shots and move the basketball: Sometimes shots aren’t going to fall. We get that. But some of the offensive issues this team has had can often times be attributed to awful decision making and “heat checks” that often lead to rallies back from the opponent. The ball has a tendency to stick and guys stand around. Both of these things need to change. If they are going to be cold, fine, but at least give yourselves a chance.
- Ignas Brazdeikis takes over: This team could flip a switch and make things interesting if we see another NCAA Tournament breakout from a Beilein player. I think Brazdeikis is the best-suited for this, and his ability to relish the big moments instead of run from them should suit him well.
- Jordan Poole levels out: Poole has not played consistently well since arguably January and seems like he has a broken shot, or flat-out isn’t taking good shots. Another issue has been hot starts that cool down quick if he shoots any time the ball is in his hands after that. Hopefully six days off will be the equivalent to unplugging and plugging him back in
- Jon Teske hits a respectable number of jumpers: Nobody is asking Teske to be an outside shooting threat, but what he cannot do is leave his shots short like he has a tendency to. If he can hit a few here and there, it would go a long way in opening things up.
- Young guys continue to emerge for key bench roles: The lack of depth on this team is a big, big concern, but it has gotten a little bit better the last few weeks with guys like David DeJulius and Colin Castleton emerging and playing meaningful minutes. Getting contributions off the bench could be a nice development.
I have no predictions or indications on if any of the above will take place, but what I can speak to is what we should expecting to see out of this team given the body of work and what the goals should be.
In terms of the Big Ten Tournament, it would nice to win another title, but at the minimum they need to play two games. Win on Friday and see what happens. They’ll get the winner of Purdue/Minnesota on Saturday, teams that they are 3-0 against this year. If it’s Purdue, we’ll see what happens, as Michigan blew them out at home way back in December, but obviously both teams are different now. If it’s Minnesota, they can’t lose that game. It took a buzzer-beater to take care of them at Crisler, but they handled them pretty well at The Barn.
This isn’t to say they can’t win the Big Ten title and that they’d be screwed if they got to Sunday and it was Michigan State, but we take for granted how hard it is to play three games in three days because they have made it look so easy the last few years.
Moving to the NCAA Tournament, I said early on in the season I expected them in Minneapolis, but that has to be dialed back based on the eyeball test. On the podcast for a few weeks now, my message has been that anything less than four NCAA Tournament games would be a disappointment. This isn’t lightning in a bottle and a program has no business being there. Michigan and Beilein have built one of the country’s elite programs and he has arguably his most talented team (again, arguably). I won’t back down from the four game prediction.
That said, there’s a bit higher of a chance of a bust and quick exit than I thought would be possible earlier in the year. They’re going to be a No. 3 or No. 4 seed at worst. They should be able to get through one game, but a Round of 32 upset could certainly happen. Hell, it almost did last year.
This team still has Final Four potential and from there, you see what happens. I’m more inclined to believe they’ll wind up bowing out in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight, but anything can happen. We have to wait for what happens this weekend and how the brackets shake out.
This team’s best shot to get going may be to get hot by playing three games in three days and head into the tournament with some momentum. An early exit or laying of an egg won’t do much to inspire confidence there.
Beilein teams usually start to peak this time of year, but this one is treading water. This either is what they are and they peaked in November, or the peak has not happened yet.
And we should all be excited (and maybe a little scared) to find out.