Although there are four games remaining on the Michigan basketball schedule, it would be shocking if head coach John Beilein's club failed to capture its first outright Big Ten Conference title since 1986. The pressure of being the clear-cut front-runner is not easy to deal with, but the Wolverines are certainly in an enviable position with their toughest matchups behind them.
A decisive victory over Michigan State last Sunday gave the Maize and Blue a half-game lead in the league standings, in addition to an important tiebreaker seeing as they swept the season series. Wisconsin's chances of winning the conference are now on life support with five losses, two more than Michigan.
None of the remaining games on the Wolverines schedule are against ranked teams. In fact, the four opponents have a combined conference record of 20-36.
There is no reason why Michigan should not win all of its games to close out the regular season. Period.
However, this time of year is called March Madness for a reason. The unexpected is to be expected. Bubble teams desperate for victories often play the role of spoiler for potential league champions, such as the Wolverines. Letdowns are not out of the equation either. Last year's Michigan team got careless against an inferior opponent and squandered a chance at a second straight Big Ten title in Happy Valley.
This season, only Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana stand between the Maize and Blue and a new championship banner for the rafters of the Crisler Center.
Entering the closing stretch, Nik Stauskas and Co. are saying the right things.
"We haven’t won anything yet," Stauskas told Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press. "There are still four games left, and if we were to lose every single one of these games, we wouldn't be Big Ten champions. So we understand the importance of every single one."
On to the real question, though. Which of those teams pose the biggest threat to Michigan's outright title aspirations?
The obvious answer would be Indiana, seeing as it is the only one of the four to beat the Wolverines in 2013-14. A couple of key factors point to this not being a very troublesome rematch, though.
For one, the Hoosiers have won just one road game since Jan. 11. Indiana's record on the road this season is a dismal 2-7. Add in a pair of neutral-site contests and its record away from the friendly confines is just 3-9. The only victories came against Penn State, Northwestern and Washington. None of those wins are really worth bragging about.
Assembly Hall seems to bring out the worst in Michigan as well, which is 12-64 all-time in Bloomington. Seeing as this one will be played in Ann Arbor, it should have no problem getting comfortable.
Finally, Stauskas appears to have figured out how to take on smaller defenders. The first time around, Yogi Ferrell hounded the sophomore shooting guard and limited him to six points on 1-of-6 shooting. Big Ten teams copied Indiana's strategy and slowed Stauskas down, until last Sunday against Michigan State.
Head coach Tom Izzo chose to put point guard Keith Appling on Stauskas for much of the afternoon. Flashing a confident and lethal pull-up jumper, he elevated over the smaller Appling time after time en route to a 25-point performance. Look for him to attack Ferrell the same way come March 8.
Minnesota is the best remaining team on the schedule, which would make it the safest bet as to who will throw a wrench into Michigan's championship run.
The Golden Gophers are also on the bubble, and beating the Wolverines could allow them to lock up a spot in the NCAA tournament. There is nothing more dangerous than a hungry and motivated group.
It is hard to see Michigan dropping a second game in a 10-day span at home, though. The Wolverines are 43-4 at home over the past three campaigns and have not lost more than two games in Ann Arbor since the 2010-11 season.
A trip to Illinois does not pose much of a threat. The Fighting Illini have lost 10 of their last 12 games. There has not been a home-court advantage in Champaign this year either. Big Ten opponents are 5-2 at the State Farm Center thus far.
Pencil that one in as a win for Michigan.
The biggest hurdle still in front of the Wolverines is their visit to West Lafayette to face Purdue on Wednesday night. Michigan has won its last two games at Mackey Arena, but both were very narrow victories. In 2011-12, it held off the Boilermakers, 66-64. Last season, Trey Burke put the Wolverines on his back and escaped with an 80-75 win.
Back on Jan. 30, Purdue gave Michigan some problems for the opening 20 minutes. The jump shots eventually fell for the Maize and Blue in the second half as they built a 17-point lead, but it was far from an easy win.
Going on the road has proven to be a challenge this season as well. Take a look at the table below for a detailed breakdown.
|There's No Place Like Home|
|Field Goal Percentage||Three-Point Field Goal Percentage||Turnovers||Points|
Guards Ronnie and Terone Johnson pose the biggest threat to the Wolverines on the perimeter, while 7-footer A.J. Hammons could go off at any given moment. He will be the biggest matchup problem for Michigan.
The expectation is nothing less than four victories, but if anyone is set up to shock Michigan, it appears to be the Boilermakers.