Questions were aplenty after Michigan lost to Ohio State at home on Feb. 4. The Crisler Center was one place where the Wolverines could be counted on to play well, and play with energy and consistency, but they did none of that against the Buckeyes in a 70-66 loss and now owned a 4-6 record in the Big Ten.
Fast forward through the next eight games and Michigan has found that energy and that consistency no matter what floor it is playing on. The play of senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. has been at the forefront of this turnaround, but Michigan is getting contributions across the board and has figured out how to play a little defense in the process. That makes the Wolverines a dangerous team entering this week’s Big Ten Tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. They come in as the No. 8 seed but are just as capable as any team of winning the championship.
Michigan would need to win four games in four days to capture its first Big Ten Tournament title since it beat Purdue for the inaugural championship in 1998. (That title was later vacated due to NCAA sanctions).
“Anybody can win the Big Ten Tournament, let’s just say that,” head coach John Beilein said after his team finished off the regular season with a 93-57 win at Nebraska on Sunday night. “That will be the goal. We’re not going to just win a game, or two, or three. We’ve had some success with some of the top teams in the league. We weren’t able to beat a couple of them but we’ve been able to play really good basketball at times, so let’s go try and win it.”
20-11 overall, 10-8 Big Ten
Nothing has been easy for any team in the Big Ten this season, so no team has an easy draw in this tournament, but Michigan won’t be backing down from any team it faces, either. If it gets past No. 9 Illinois in its opener Thursday, top-seeded Purdue awaits in the quarterfinal round. The Wolverines beat the Boilermakers, 82-70, on Feb. 25 at home.
Beyond that, No. 4 Minnesota and No. 5 Michigan State are also in the upper half of the bracket. The bottom half of the draw features No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 3 Maryland and No. 6 Northwestern.
There are no automatics in the group, but there are also no teams Michigan would need a miracle to beat.
Michigan’s NCAA Tournament resume seems pretty secure according to most national analysts. The late-season surge and nonconference wins (on neutral courts) against Marquette and SMU have Michigan a safe distance from the bubble, unlike last year when it needed a couple of wins just to be included in the First Four portion of the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines are focused on winning the Big Ten Tournament this year, and believe they can. They have beaten Purdue, Wisconsin (split) and Michigan State (split) this season, with an overtime loss at Minnesota, and a last-second defeat at Northwestern thrown into the mix.
Illinois and Michigan split two games in the regular season, each winning on its home court. The games came in the first month of the conference schedule, so each team has evolved since they last met.
Guard play and the perimeter dictate what both teams do when they’re at their best. Michigan led the Big Ten in 3-point shots made, was second in 3-point shooting percentage, and led the conference in turnover margin. Walton has been the focal point of Michigan’s offense, but Zak Irvin and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman have picked up their play. Abdur-Rahkman has scored in double figures in nine of the last 11 games, while playing well defensively.
Illinois is led by guard Malcolm Hill, a 6-foot-6 senior who was a second-team All-Big Ten selection along with Walton. Hill has scored in double figures 25 straight games, including averaging 19.2 points over the last five games. He’s had 24 assists in those five games, helping the Illini go 4-1 down the stretch.
Player to watch
Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner is Michigan’s X factor. He’s averaging 12.4 points per game, but more important for Michigan is when and where Wagner gets his points. Wagner is sixth in the Big Ten shooting 57.1 percent from the field, and he’s making 43.2 percent of his 3-point attempts. He can shoot over zones, and he’s a difficult matchup for teams playing man defense.
Wagner had 22 points in the first half of the win against Purdue, including making four 3-pointers, but he can drive to the basket when the opportunity presents.
|Derrick Walton Jr.||G||14.5||4.7||4.5 assists|
|Zak Irvin||G/F||12.6||4.3||41 made 3-point att|
|Moritz Wagner||F||12.4||4.4||43.2% 3-point att|
|DJ Wilson||F||10.0||5.4||43 blocked shots|
|M-A Abdur-Rahkman||G||9.2||2.7||28 steals|
|Duncan Robinson||G/F||8.2||1.8||56 made 3-point att|
|Mark Donnal||F||4.4||2.3||63.5 % FG in 13.2 min|
|Xavier Simpson||G||1.8||0.7||2-to-1 assist/turnover ratio|
Michigan has handed six teams the worst loss of their seasons during the 2016-17 campaign. The Wolverines beat Marquette by 18 points on Nov. 17 and SMU (now ranked No. 12 in the country) by 22 points the next night. They beat Indiana by 30 points and Michigan State by 29 points, both at the Crisler Center, and the 12-point win against Purdue on Feb. 25 was the largest for the Boilermakers. The 36-point win at Nebraska this past Sunday was also the largest margin of defeat for the Huskers in Pinnacle Bank Arena, which opened in 2013.