And just like that, the regular season is over. What started with question marks saw the Michigan Wolverines shoot up the national polls, only to fall down into seemingly dangerous territory, then level out to where many hoped they would be before the season even began. All of that is over now; Michigan enters postseason play with essentially a clean slate. Expectations have settled down, but the opportunity still remains.
The No. 9 seed in the Big Ten Tournament is not where anyone was projecting the Wolverines to sit at the end of the year, but after losing their head coach and three starters before the season, and then Isaiah Livers for a long stretch during the year, it makes a lot of sense. For what it is worth, Kenpom has Michigan as the fourth-best team in the conference, while Torvik puts the maize and blue third. Obviously standings do not reflect advanced metrics, but being the nine seed is not exactly representative of this team’s potential.
Thursday’s opponent is the No. 8 seed Rutgers Scarlet Knights who are a top-30 side themselves. Michigan has beaten the Knights twice in the last six weeks, once at Madison Square Garden and once in New Jersey. Racking up three wins against the same team in one season is never an easy task, but the Wolverines have been to three straight Big Ten Tournament finals and looked dominant in the Bahamas, so this is not a squad anyone should want to face in this type of environment.
What to watch
Scoring in different ways: During the first game against Rutgers, Michigan got some solid production from its bigs. Brandon Johns put up a season-high 20 points — going 4-for-7 from three — and Jon Teske and Austin Davis scored 13 and eight, respectively. In the rematch, though, it was the guards, as Zavier Simpson led the way with 16 points, while Franz Wagner added 12, and David DeJulius chipped in 10 himself. Rutgers boasts the sixth-best defensive efficiency in the whole country and kept Michigan around a point per possession in the first two matchups. The Wolverines will need to figure out what is working well on Thursday and lean on that.
Rebounding: Michigan ranks second in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding. Rutgers ranks seventh in offensive rebounding. Yet somehow, the Knights put on a clinic in New York with 26 (!!) offensive rebounds and 51 overall to Michigan’s 37 and then snagged another 14 offensive boards at home while again winning the rebounding battle. While improvements were made in the second contest, the Wolverines cannot put themselves at a disadvantage again by giving up second opportunities. It sounds simple because it is simple: box out and grab the Rutgers misses.
Seizing the moment: Like a game of basketball, Michigan’s season has turned into a bunch of runs: starting 7-0, slumping 4-8, storming back 7-1, ending 1-3. Now is not the ideal time to be on a downswing, but as mentioned before, the Wolverines have been eerily strong in neutral site contests as of late. Over the past three seasons, the Wolverines are 10-1 in Big Ten Tournament play, 9-3 in NCAA Tournament games, and 9-1 in early-season tournaments. Whether it has to do with the neutral courts, the back-to-back games, or the excitement of the events, Michigan just seems suited for this type of play.
For whatever reason, it seems like Michigan has Rutgers’ number. This should be a close one, but the Wolverines move on. 70-66 Michigan.
Teams: No. 9 seed Michigan Wolverines (19-12, 10-10) vs. No. 8 seed Rutgers Scarlet Knights (20-11, 11-9)
Date: Thursday, March 12, 2020
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Time: 12:00 p.m. ET
Television/Streaming: BTN/BTN+, FuboTV