Simply put, this has been an extremely frustrating year. The Michigan Wolverines were unlikely to be elite, but projecting this level of struggles — even after the loss of Jaelin Llewellyn — was a long stretch. It feels like ages since Michigan has spent the majority of the winter not even in the “others considered” section of bracketology posts.
And yet, with Thursday’s season-saving win at Rutgers, the Wolverines have hit double-digit wins in a strong Big Ten and have a shot at playing their way into the NCAA Tournament. While experts still have the maize and blue on the wrong side of the bubble, the general consensus right now as agreed upon “win two out of the final three.”
The simplest of those three to win would be the Wisconsin Badgers on Sunday, despite Michigan’s embarrassment in Madison on Valentine’s Day. The Badgers are not having a good year and are certainly beatable, as seen in the first matchup. While the next two games offer much-needed Quad 1 opportunities, all wins at this stage matter. For what it is worth, I think winning all three might be a necessity, but either way, this would not be a good one to drop.
Wisconsin Badgers (16-11, 8-9) at Michigan Wolverines (16-12, 10-7)
Date & Time: Sunday, Feb. 26, 2:00 p.m.
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
Big Ten Standings: UW t-10th, UM t-3rd
All droughts are bad
Against all odds, the Michigan defense has been actually pretty good down the stretch, but unfortunately this has overlapped with some horrid offense. Inexcusable scoring droughts against Indiana and Wisconsin cost the team a couple resume-boosters, and there is just no way teams can expect to compete when the offense phones it in for the final 10 minutes of play.
The Wolverines also had some scoring issues against Rutgers, but thankfully those were more on the front end of the game. Still, this is obviously not a recipe for success, and the Badgers do offer a top-25 defense. There was no singular reason for Michigan not being able to execute against them last time, but this team can and should put up a better effective field goal rate than 46.5 percent.
It certainly looks like Kobe Bufkin is the real deal, and he and Hunter Dickinson are the two pillars capable of supporting this offense, even if Jett Howard is out. Both will need to carry this team over the final three games, but the x-factor has to be Dug McDaniel. While the overall numbers are not necessarily eye-popping, he just looks like a difference maker on the floor, especially compared to even a month ago. It is time to Let Dug Cook.
Defense wins...tournament berths?
Aside from the Michigan State game, the Michigan defense has been pretty reliable. The effort against Rutgers was quite noticeable, as the visitors forced turnovers, grabbed rebounds, and gave 100 percent effort for the entire shot clock. That is not an anomaly as of late, and it is the culmination of a season’s worth of growth.
Like the Scarlet Knights, the Badgers are not great offensively. Michigan should have won the game in Madison after limiting them to just 33 percent from inside the arc, and it feels like an ugly game is probably the best way for this one to go sideways again. Instead, if the Wolverines can use their defense to facilitate some looks in transition like on Thursday, this could be a big win for the home team.
This game feels less like a must-win than the other two, yet at the same time Michigan can really not afford to throw it away. Every victory helps on the resume — and in the Big Ten standings — and killing the momentum with a stupid loss could be devastating at this stage. Wisconsin is never an easy task in either football or basketball, but with this game at home the Wolverines need to make a statement.