This is not how things were supposed to go. Sure, this year was going to have some bumps along the way given all of the player and coaching turnover, and of course, one impressive week in the Bahamas was not going to completely represent the entirety of the season, but 2-6 in conference play with an NCAA Tournament bid now in doubt? That was never in the cards.
However, that is the reality that the Michigan Wolverines are now facing. Four straight losses and five in six have the maize and blue tied for 11th place in the conference. There are still plenty of (winnable) games to go, but with the way the Big Ten looks this season — and the way Michigan looks as of late — nothing can be taken as a guarantee, or even a toss-up.
The task gets even harder on Tuesday with the suspension of Zavier Simpson. Like Isaiah Livers, who is expected to be out due to injury again, Simpson is someone the Wolverines cannot afford to be without. Now they head to Lincoln without their two most vital players and very little time to turn the ship around. A loss here could seriously change the postseason opportunities.
What to watch
Change the plan: At some point it becomes necessary to take a hard look at oneself and realize the truth. Michigan is shooting 27.4 percent from three during conference play, which is unsurprisingly worst in the league. The last four games have seen the Wolverines take 107 attempts (!) and make just 28 percent of them. That does not seem super wise. Meanwhile, Michigan leads the conference from inside the arc at 53.7 percent. Obviously an offense must have some balance, but it seems like some of those 107 three-point attempts could be shifted to higher-percentage looks. Even though the Wolverines do not seem to be settling for a bunch of bad takes from deep, if the shots are just not falling it becomes time to go to Plan B. As a bonus, Nebraska is the worst in the conference at defending two-pointers.
Lock down on defense: When the offense is struggling, teams can at least rely on their defense, and that should be the case on Tuesday. Notoriously, Michigan has been dominated by big men throughout conference play, but the risk of that seems minimal against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are pretty bland on offense and do not boast the inside threat of some of the other teams in the league. Michigan gave up 0.96 points per possession to Penn State and 1.02 against Illinois; Nebraska has topped 1.00 points per possession just once over its last five games. Simpson has continued to be a strong defender, so the Wolverines must figure it out without him and keep the Huskers off balance. They should be able to keep them under a point per possession, and this might be a necessity given the recent woes on offense.
Win the game: Aside from the rematch in Ann Arbor in March, this is probably the easiest game on the rest of Michigan’s schedule. Nebraska sits at 131st overall on Kenpom, and even on the road the Wolverines are decent favorites. The Wolverines do not have any bad losses on their resume, so dropping this one would be uncharacteristic, but anything can happen. Regardless of Simpson and Livers, Michigan absolutely must just find a way to Win. The. Game.
Even with the assumption that Livers is out, this team has to know that it is entering crunch time. The bleeding finally stops with a convincing road win. 80-67 Michigan.
Teams: Michigan Wolverines (11-8, 2-6) at Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-13, 2-7)
Date: Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Location: Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, NE
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Television/Streaming: ESPNU/Watch ESPN