The Michigan Wolverines are entering the best month in college basketball with a little momentum; they’ve won their last three games, all against Big Ten teams currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament.
However, they still need another quality win or two to secure their spot. They have a tough week to finish the regular season, with road tests against Illinois and Indiana before heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
The biggest issue for the Wolverines this season has been closing big games, as that’s the biggest reason they are 3-10 in Quad 1 games and currently on the outside looking in.
Assistant coach Saddi Washington said in his media availability Wednesday morning that all those attempts to win close games has helped this team as the season has gone along.
“I think our guys are just having a very clear understanding of how important it is to just live in the details,” Washington said. “Whatever was contributing to us not finishing games, now it appears we’ve learned from our past failures. Failure is a big part of learning how to be successful, right? Now I think we’re in a better position to finish out some of these games as we move forward, because they don’t get any easier.”
The Wolverines have been without one of their top scorers the last two games, with Jett Howard nursing a lower-body injury. Washington said the projected-lottery pick has been progressing a little bit each day, but it’s “TBD” on whether or not he’ll be available against Illinois tomorrow evening.
“I know he’s been working really hard through his rehab to get back,” Washington said. “He’s had a great attitude throughout, with his support of his brothers in the process. If and whenever he comes back, we’re going to be happy to have him.”
Preparing for Illinois
Michigan knows Illinois’ leading scorer quite well; as you remember, Terrance Shannon Jr. was heavily recruited by the Wolverines in the transfer portal.
Last April, it seemed like he was a shoe-in to head to Ann Arbor before Texas Tech head coach Mark Adams reportedly refused Shannon to take summer classes, graduate and transfer to Michigan. Hunter Dickinson even voiced his frustrations at the time.
Shannon has made a solid case to make one of the All-Big Ten teams, averaging 17.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 52.5% from the field and 79.2% from the free throw line.
“He’s had a great year,” Washington said. “He’s had a good impact in that program. He’s such a competitor and I think it’s going to be a great challenge, one that our guys are excited for.”
Illinois is right behind Michigan in the Big Ten standings. The Illini have some impressive wins early in the year against No. 8 UCLA and No. 2 Texas, as well as quality Big Ten wins (No. 24 Rutgers, No. 21 Northwestern, Wisconsin twice). They’re also incredibly good at home, winning 14 of their 16 games at State Farm Center.
Illinois doesn’t really have a signature skill but as Washington said, it is pretty solid at just about everything.
“They’re a team that can get up and down the floor with the best of them,” Washington said. “They can finish at the rim, they got shooters all over the floor, they got interior play, they defend like no other. When you look at them, they’re a pretty complete bunch. We’re going to have play well in Champaign to get it done.”
This is obviously a must-win game for Michigan, but Illinois has lost four of the last seven games, including a 12-point loss to a bad Ohio State team this past Sunday. The Illini close the year with Michigan and No. 5 Purdue, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt the Fighting Illini to pick up those two wins and get some momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
“Both teams are in a situation where there’s a lot to play for,” Washington said. “I don’t think anyone wants to blink first.”
With how unpredictable the Big Ten has been the season, that conference tournament is all about momentum. A team like Michigan could win a game or two in that tournament and earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
“A week from now, the records won’t matter,” Washington said. “Now it’s just who’s playing the best at the right time of the year. That’s what really March is all about.”