What games do the Michigan Wolverines have to win this season?
The Michigan basketball program is once again a powerhouse in the Big Ten Conference.
But given the parity throughout the league, there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way of a second league title in three seasons. There are five games in particular that will make or break the Wolverines' upcoming campaign.
Given the fact Michigan can boost its NCAA tournament seeding significantly in Big Ten play, most of the non-conference games are unlikely to carry significant weight. Sure, marquee victories outside of the league are important—but they have no bearing on the Wolverines' pursuit of a Big Ten crown.
Michigan cannot afford to have any of the following five games slip through its fingers.
The environment in Ames will provide Michigan with a grueling road test early in the year.
This game may not seem very important since the Michigan Wolverines clearly overmatch the Iowa State Cyclones on paper, but it is a make-or-break game for a couple of reasons.
For one, this will be Michigan's first road game of the season.
Given how many young players the Wolverines have—especially with a freshman potentially starting at point guard—and last season's road woes, this will be a big test early in the year.
The Maize and Blue were 5-5 in road contests last season. Two of those wins were against Bradley and Northwestern, meaning neither was very impressive. A loss at Penn State was a low point, too.
The Cyclones return a pair of athletic forwards in Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang. Those two combined for 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per game during the 2012-13 campaign. The bulk of Iowa State's 346 three-pointers are gone—however, head coach Fred Hoiberg undoubtedly has a few more long-range shooters in his stable.
Another reason why this is a crucial game is because it could wind up hurting Michigan's NCAA tournament seeding. Losses to Arizona and Duke might not bolster the Wolverines' case for a high seed, but it certainly would not be seen in quite such a negative light.
On the other hand, failing to knock off a lesser opponent, no matter the venue, does not look good in the eyes of the committee. Michigan needs to be ready for this test in the opening month of the season.
The Iowa Hawkeyes are looking to take the next step and contend for a Big Ten title.
The Iowa Hawkeyes may not win the Big Ten Conference title this season, but they are surely going to steal a couple of games from the league's heavyweights. Michigan cannot afford to be one of those victims on Jan. 22 at the Crisler Center.
Iowa returns all five of its leading scorers, including All-Big Ten third-team selection Roy Devyn Marble. Standout reserve Josh Oglesby is back as well.
If the Wolverines are going to win a Big Ten championship, they must defend their home floor. Michigan is still the better team in this matchup on paper, so it cannot afford to squander this game away.
This contest is also important considering where it falls in the Wolverines' schedule. John Beilein's group will be coming off of a daunting road trip to Wisconsin. Three days after Iowa comes to Ann Arbor, Michigan will travel to Michigan State.
The Maize and Blue will be hard pressed to win both of those games, which makes the Jan. 22 contest even more critical.
Michigan State is the favorite to win the Big Ten, so stealing a win at the Crisler Center is critical to Michigan's conference title aspirations.
By the time Michigan and Michigan State get together for a second time in the 2013-14 campaign, the Big Ten title chase will be coming into focus. Expect the in-state rivals to be atop the standings, come Feb. 23. This means there is going to be a lot riding on the outcome of the second meeting of the year between the two.
In order for Michigan to have any shot at winning the league, it must beat the Spartans at least once.
Failing to do so will leave the Wolverines on the outside looking in when it comes to the final standings and any potential tiebreakers.
Given Michigan's abysmal performance in East Lansing last season, it is hard to see it coming away with a victory there. Topping Michigan State at the Crisler Center seems much more realistic.
After all, the Wolverines have beaten the Spartans three straight times in Ann Arbor.
Entering what will be a difficult closing stretch, the Maize and Blue could use a shot of adrenaline and a resume-padding victory. A win over Michigan State would provide Michigan with both.
Coming away from Mackey Arena with a victory will not be easy.
To reiterate a previous point, dispatching of lesser opponents is a requirement for winning a Big Ten title. The site of the game does not give anyone a pass.
Mackey Arena will be louder than ever when Michigan comes to town with eyes set on a league crown. Oh, and Purdue has the personnel to push the Wolverines to the brink. This will be one of the toughest road games Michigan plays all season, bar none.
Many of the Boilermakers who nearly upset the Maize and Blue in West Lafayette in 2012-13 are back. Rising sophomore 7-footer A.J. Hammons will be a force down low for Purdue and could be the difference maker on Feb. 26.
More importantly, this contest comes just three days after an emotional home game against Michigan State. If the Wolverines come out on the losing end of that matchup, they will be even more desperate for a win against Purdue.
The final weeks of February will play a big part in determining the Big Ten champion.
Michigan cannot afford to leave the Hoosier State without a win.
Can Michigan close out the regular season on a high note this time around?
For the second year in a row, the Michigan Wolverines and Indiana Hoosiers will face one another during the closing weekend of the regular season. The 2012-13 campaign saw the Big Ten championship come down to the final play between these two.
The same could very well happen again this year.
Rising sophomore Yogi Ferrell could wind up being the best point guard in the conference by season's end. By the end of the year, incoming freshmen Noah Vonleh and Luke Fischer should be making significant contributions.
This team is going to give Michigan a run for its money on March 8.
Notching a victory over the Hoosiers at home will allow the Wolverines to do some scoreboard watching on the final day of the regular season. Fellow Big Ten contenders Michigan State and Ohio State will be going head-to-head on Mar. 9, which will likely decide who wins the league.
Plain and simple, unless Michigan is a whole game up on the rest of the conference heading into the meeting with Indiana, it will need a victory to add a new banner to the rafters.