On Saturday afternoon, Michigan hosts No. 1 Arizona.
It might be the Wolverines' last chance to salvage their 2013-14 season.
Oh sure, regardless of what happens on Saturday they could dominate the months of January and February, win the Big Ten and earn a No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Let's be serious, though. This team is barely even a shell of what it was supposed to be.
Of the teams ranked in the Top 13 of the AP Preseason Poll, 12 were still ranked in the Top 19 this past Monday.
Then there's Michigan.
After losses to Iowa State, Charlotte and Duke, the Wolverines plummeted all the way from No. 7 to unranked in one month's time. Entering play on Thursday, Michigan had the worst RPI in the Big Ten—and by no small margin.
Health has certainly been an issue since before the season even began. The loss to Iowa State was Mitch McGary's first game of the year, and he still doesn't look quite right. Both Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas suffered injuries in the loss to Charlotte and were subsequently useless in the loss to Duke, combining for 12 points, seven personal fouls and five turnovers in 68 minutes of action.
A win over Arizona would go a long way to cover up those wrongs. Lose to the Wildcats, however, and we're talking about a four-loss team about to embark upon a stretch of 18 conference games that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy.
With nothing better than an overtime win over Florida State to its credit, a loss to Arizona wouldn't just stifle Michigan's pipe dreams of earning a No. 1 seed. This game could very well determine whether or not Michigan even makes the tournament.
Suggesting that a team could go from preseason Top 10 to missing the tournament isn't exactly as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it happens in more seasons than it doesn't.
|Preseason Top 10 Teams Who Missed NCAA Tournament|
|Season||School||Preseason AP Rank||Record|
What can Michigan do to avoid the same fate?
For one, the Wolverines need to find an identity on offense, and they need to do it fast.
Aside from maybe Jon Horford, McGary is the only person on the team who even remotely resembles a center, except he doesn't have any interest in the position. Despite dominating in the post during last year's NCAA tournament, it seems McGary would rather be getting the ball on the elbows of the foul line than on the low blocks.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the way he plays, but he doesn't act like a traditional big man. This would be fine if Michigan either had other big men or anyone other than Stauskas that averages better than two made three-pointers per game.
But they don't. The Wolverines are neither a perimeter team nor a grind-it-out-in-the-paint kind of team. They have no identity. It's almost as if they didn't realize that Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. wouldn't be coming back.
Stauskas and Robinson III are great players, but it's not a good sign that the offense completely shuts down when those two guys aren't shouldering the load—especially since teams like Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin shouldn't have too much difficulty holding those guys in check.
If not for Caris LeVert tirelessly getting to the rim against Duke, it's tough to say who would have even been shooting or dribbling the ball for them on that particular night.
They have significant issues on defense too.
In the four games against teams in the RPI Top 150, Michigan's opponents shot 50.6 percent from inside the arc and 38.2 percent from three-point range.
To help put those numbers in perspective, a 50.6 percent two-point field-goal defense would rank 222nd in the nation, and a 38.2 percent three-point field-goal defense would rank 293rd. Playing against the likes of Houston Baptist and Massachusetts Lowell has helped keep Michigan's overall percentages for the season in a more respectable range, but it is really struggling to slow down teams that are worth their weight in salt.
A complete lack of interior defense doesn't help their cause. In the four aforementioned games, the Wolverines recorded a grand total of five blocks—and two of the three blocks in the game against Florida State didn't occur until overtime.
Chris Obekpa from St. John's is averaging 5.5 blocks per game, so 1.25 blocks per game by an entire team isn't exactly an adequate amount of rim protection.
(This seems like a fine time to point out that Arizona starts three players—Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski—who are 6'8" or taller. If McGary is ever going to get back to playing like he did against Kansas in last year's tournament, this would be a great time to start.)
The perimeter defense isn't much better. The team does average nearly 6.5 steals per game, but that aggressiveness often backfires in the form of uncontested shots. Duke and Iowa State each missed a fair number of wide open three-pointers, which would have pushed that 38.2 percent mark well into the 40s.
But hey, what do I know?
There are still more than three months until Selection Sunday. A lot can change in 100 days.
At this point in last season, Marquette already had three losses and Miami had lost to Florida Gulf Coast. They combined to receive 11 votes in the AP Poll released on Dec. 10, 2012 and looked nothing like a pair of teams that would eventually meet in the Sweet 16 as the No. 2- and No. 3-seeded teams in the East region.
Things should get better for Michigan as the banged-up players get closer to full strength. It's just a matter of how much better and how quickly it can happen.
There's no question, though, that a win over Arizona would make Michigan's journey back to national prominence a much easier one.