Michigan Basketball: Will Wolverines Sink or Swim in Brutal Closing Schedule?

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Michigan Basketball: Will Wolverines Sink or Swim in Brutal Closing Schedule?
USA TODAY Sports

As turbulent a path as the beginning of February proved to be for Michigan, it appears that the Wolverines have stabilized with just four games remaining. 

Michigan sits at 10-4 in Big Ten play, having won two straight over Penn State and Illinois after the debacle in East Lansing. It’s two games back of league-leading Indiana, but coach John Beilein need not concentrate on that number. 

The key number is four: the amount of games left, the number of teams assured of a first-round bye in the conference tournament and the number of freshman forward Mitch McGary, whose success is integral to the Wolverines.  

Can the Wolverines take down two of the Big Ten’s elite, finish within the top four of the conference AND improve their chance at a No. 1 seed? Let’s see.

 

February 27th at Penn State 

On the surface, Wednesday’s game against Penn State seems like a lock for Michigan, and it likely is. The Nittany Lions are still searching for their first conference victory, and they’ve only got four more chances to get it. 

However, this is the same Penn State team that threatened to flip the upset of the year on Feb. 17 in Ann Arbor. They were within one point of Michigan with 9:09 remaining before a 10-2 run gave the Wolverines a bit of breathing room. Neither team should forget the feeling, and both should play with urgency in Happy Valley. 

Expect the paint to be a point of emphasis for Beilein as his team was out-rebounded 35-29 by the lowly Lions. McGary and forward Jordan Morgan were non-factors, combining for zero points and five rebounds in 27 minutes. 

 

March 3rd vs. Michigan State

If Wednesday’s game is the appetizer, then Sunday’s game against the Spartans is the steak dinner. The Wolverines were flat-out embarrassed in East Lansing, losing 75-52 in a game that was supposed to tilt the state’s basketball power towards Ann Arbor. Tom Izzo wasn’t ready to relinquish that mantle, though. 

The Spartans have an entire week to prepare for Michigan and will undoubtedly pound the ball inside again. In the first meeting, the Spartans had a decisive 41-30 rebounding advantage, including 14 offensive rebounds, which led to 18 second-chance points. 

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This is precisely where McGary needs to impose himself. He’s a relentless rebounder (5.7 rebounds per game in just 18 minutes) and needs to do better than four points, four rebounds and four turnovers like he did in the first meeting. Michigan State’s strength is the Wolverines’ weakness, but only if McGary is off his game. The freshman has the potential to be the equalizer on both ends of the floor. 

Watch for him to set numerous high screens for Trey Burke, drawing the Spartans' big men to the perimeter as McGary rolls to the hoop. They've done it all year long. Watch at the :30 second mark as Jon Horford screens for Burke, then rolls to the hoop for the easy basket in the win over Illinois.   

Although you wouldn’t know it based on the outcome, Burke vastly outplayed Keith Appling in the first meeting. Burke finished with 18 points, four assists and three steals and was largely responsible for forcing Appling into 4-of-14 shooting. Burke has continued to surge (he hasn’t scored less than 15 points once in B1G play) and Appling has struggled as of late. Advantage Wolverines.

 

March 6th at Purdue 

The matchup in West Lafayette against Purdue on March 6th pits the two youngest teams in the Big Ten against one another. Michigan’s talent overwhelmed in the first meeting (a 68-53 victory), and although Purdue’s center A.J. Hammons could terrorize the Wolverines’ frontcourt, he was largely absent from the first affair with just two points and two rebounds in 24 minutes. 

The Wolverines’ outside shooting threats, Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr., should help dispatch the Boilermakers.

 

March 10 vs. Indiana 

Which brings us to the last game of the season, a rematch of the best game in college basketball this year: Indiana at Michigan. Both teams have Player of the Year candidates and both teams are vying for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Should be monumental, right?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The disappointing part is as exciting and entertaining as this game should be, it will likely be largely inconsequential. Indiana (12-2) will probably have locked up the conference title, and barring a collapse, both teams should finish in the top four of the Big Ten, guaranteeing first-round byes. (Schedule watchers should monitor Ohio State at Indiana on March 5th. The Buckeyes are one game behind Michigan in the loss column and figure to be significant underdogs in Bloomington.) 

The biggest subplot to the regular-season finale is that a Michigan victory would undoubtedly be its best win of the season, boosting its tournament resume. They could get another game vs. Indiana in the conference tournament, but Wolverines fans deserve a crack at the Hoosiers on their own turf. 

Regardless of the outcome against the Hoosiers, Michigan has a favorable schedule in its next three games and should be able to negotiate promising seeds for both upcoming tournaments. 

Don't look now, but March is almost here. 

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