Since the Michigan basketball schedule was released, the dates of January 17 through January 26 were circled on every fan’s calendar: UConn, @Wisconsin, @Purdue, Michigan State. Before the season, fans expected this stretch to largely determine the Wolverines’ potential NCAA Tournament seed — instead, these brutal couple weeks will determine if Michigan has a realistic shot at the tournament, period.
Although Michigan handled then-#15 UConn in impressive fashion, the toughest part of the schedule has yet to come. Wisconsin, a team Michigan hasn’t beaten at the Kohl Center since 1999, is 14-4 and the #19 team in the country. Saturday’s trip to West Lafayette sees the Wolverines matched up against a reeling Purdue squad (now ranked #15 themselves) who has lost three of their last four games after starting 14-0, a dangerous endeavor against a desperate team looking to reaffirm their preseason top ten status. The cherry on top is a home contest against #7 Michigan State (15-3, 5-0 Big Ten) next Tuesday.
To say that this stretch will define Michigan’s season may be an understatement. After watching this team play its best game of the season against a Connecticut squad that appeared — on paper — to be the worst possible matchup for the Wolverines, I think it’s undeniable that this team has the talent to play with almost any team in the country, and certainly find itself a spot in the tournament. Unfortunately, that team has been tough to find for long stretches this season, and a 10-7 overall record leaves the Wolverines with a lot of work to do to build a strong postseason resume.
This is not to say that Michigan is facing three must-win games. In college basketball, you can never quite say for certain that any game is a “must-win” until the conference tournament season — just look at last year, when Michigan seemingly dropped every chance at the Big Dance until putting it all together just in time for an NCAA run. However, taking at least two of these games would make a world of a difference for this team’s postseason chances, and also help further boost the confidence of a team that was searching for an identity just a week ago.
The odds are not in Michigan’s favor: Wisconsin defends their home court particularly well, having not lost at home all season, and Michigan hasn’t exactly performed at their best away from Crisler this season. If last season taught me anything, however, it is to not count out a John Beilein-coached team until it really is over. And it’s not over yet.
For your game preview, check out UMHoops. Also worth checking out are Dylan’s conversation with the Wisconsin blog Hoops Marinara, his breakdown of Zack Novak’s play against UConn, and his post of Michigan players’ Roland ratings (essentially adjusted +/-) so far this season. Basically, read UMHoops — there’s no better source out there for Michigan basketball info. The game tonight is at 8:30, televised on the Big Ten Network, and Wisconsin is favored by nine. The good news: the Badgers are missing big man Jon Leuer, and will not have their usual massive size advantage against the Wolverines. If Michigan’s shots are dropping, an upset could be in the works, and the Wolverines could be on their way to salvaging the season. At least, that’s what the extreme homer part of my brain is telling me. Let’s hope that part of my brain is the smart one.