In a season full of could’ves and should’ves, there is something oddly calming about the clarity this week offers. There are a million alternate universes where the Michigan Wolverines enter the Big Ten Tournament as one of the top seeds — and with an NCAA Tournament berth already comfortably locked up — but that is not this reality.
Instead, Michigan will need to win two games to clinch its spot in the Big Dance, Thursday against Rutgers and Friday against Purdue. These Quad 1 victories should be enough to push the Wolverines across the bubble, but neither win is close to guaranteed, especially against the top-five Boilermakers.
To get another shot at Purdue, though, the Wolverines must first take down the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The good news is that Michigan took down its fellow bubble member just two weeks ago, and that was in a much more challenging road environment. In terms of getting a Quad 1 opportunity to open the tournament, this is a near perfect matchup for the maize and blue.
No. 8 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 9 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Date & Time: Thursday, Mar. 9, Noon
Location: United Center, Chicago, IL
DraftKings Odds: UM -2.5, O/U 132
Since losing forward Mawot Mag, Rutgers has gone a dismal 2-6 to close out the regular season. This is no coincidence, and expect the team’s struggles to continue without him. While it looked like the Knights were going to be one of the conference’s best teams, they instead are limping into March and could miss out on the NCAA Tournament if they come up short on Thursday (especially if Michigan then wins on Friday).
Michigan won the meeting in Piscataway by suffocating the Rutgers offense, and that should be the plan again. The Knights were horrid shooting the ball and generated few second chances thanks to a comprehensive team effort. This all starts with the Wolverines’ cornerstone, and they will have to look to Hunter Dickinson to again be the difference maker in the lane.
The young duo of Kobe Bufkin and Dug McDaniel led Michigan on the other end of the floor, but it was not an amazing performance against Rutgers’ still-solid defense. Getting the most out of the backcourt will be important on Thursday as well, and on a neutral court (that should lean towards the Wolverines) the environment should be a lot more manageable.
So many times this season Michigan has let winnable games slip away, but none of that matters now. A win on Thursday gives the Wolverines a win-and-in opportunity against Purdue, which is all that can be asked for at this point of the year.
Check out Michigan’s start to the Big Ten Tournament at noon on Thursday on BTN, and hopefully come back to the same time and place on Friday.