If the NCAA tournament seeds were determined by how teams perform in the first two months of the season, the Michigan basketball program would likely have been a double-digit seed. As things stand now, though, the Wolverines are the outright champions of the Big Ten Conference with numerous wins over the RPI Top 50.
This puts them in a position to be on one of the higher lines of the March Madness brackets come Selection Sunday.
Prognosticators across the country began selling stock in the Wolverines when they lost preseason All-American forward Mitch McGary to back surgery in late-December. It was hard to blame them given the fact Michigan went just 4-4 in the eight games he actually managed to play in.
Since then, the McGary-less Wolverines have gone 16-3 overall and ran through Big Ten play with a 14-3 record.
Along the way, Michigan has compiled a 4-4 record against the RPI Top 25 and eight wins over the RPI Top 50, four of which came on the road. Considering the fact it has played the nation’s ninth-toughest schedule, a 22-7 record has to look mighty impressive right now in the eyes of the selection committee.
Head coach John Beilein has been the driving force behind it all.
Under his tutelage, Caris LeVert has arguably been the most improved player in the country this season. Additionally, Nik Stauskas is one of the favorites to be named Big Ten Player of the Year, while former 1-star prospect Spike Albrecht and true freshman Derrick Walton Jr. rapidly blossomed into steady point guards.
The development of the aforementioned players, along with Michigan’s second Big Ten title in three seasons and first outright championship since 1986, has Beilein in the mix for national coach of the year honors.
The conference tournament will serve as a final opportunity for Michigan to push its way up the seeding chart, but the heavy lifting is already done. Here are the most likely scenarios for what line the Wolverines’ will fall on for the NCAA tournament.
No Chance at a No. 1
No matter what happens the rest of the way, Michigan’s chances of earning a No. 1 seed are already shot.
The four top seeds in Joe Lunardi’s latest edition of Bracketology are as follows: Arizona, Florida, Kansas and Wichita State.
The Wolverines are unlikely to push Arizona off the one line seeing as it lost a head-to-head matchup in Ann Arbor back in December.
Kansas has a better resume with seven wins against the RPI Top 25, and it has the nation’s top-ranked strength of schedule.
Barring a loss in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Wichita State will earn a No. 1 by virtue of an undefeated season.
Florida is the outlier in the category with only six wins against the RPI Top 50, but it has been one of the best teams in the nation in terms of the eye test. A win over Kansas and 27-2 overall record helps its cause significantly.
This is where the Wolverines’ struggles early in the year really hurt. Bad losses are the easiest way to stay off the top line. Even though Glenn Robinson III left with an injury, there is no way of getting around a loss to a sub-RPI 150 team like Charlotte.
Circumstances are irrelevant, though. Those games are must-wins for the nation’s elite.
The Tournament Before the Tournament
A game against the winner of the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds of the Big Ten tournament are not going to do Michigan any favors. In fact, there will be a lot more to lose than to gain in its first contest of the postseason.
Assuming Iowa is able to secure the No. 4 seed in the league tournament, a win in the semifinals would further pad the Wolverines' résumé. The Hawkeyes check in at No. 43 in the RPI, which would make for another quality win.
If the chalk manages to hold, Michigan would face either Wisconsin or Michigan State in the championship game. Beating Wisconsin, the fourth-ranked team in the RPI, would give the Maize and Blue a huge boost heading into Selection Sunday.
Winning all of those games should be enough for the Wolverines to push their way up to a No. 2 seed. Wisconsin, Duke, Syracuse and Villanova all occupy those spots right now.
Seeing as the Orange suffered their second loss to a sub-RPI Top 150 team on Tuesday night, they are the most likely to fall from that line. Michigan's schedule is much stronger and it would have 10 wins against teams ranked inside the Top 50 of the RPI. Syracuse currently has eight against the No. 66-ranked slate.
Were the Wolverines to play the Badgers in the championship game of the Big Ten tournament, they would have a much stronger case to occupy their current seeding.
Advancing to the championship game likely keeps Michigan at a No. 3 seed. A loss in the semifinals would leave the door open for a team that makes a deep run in its conference tournament to move up and drop the Wolverines down a line. San Diego State and Cincinnati have the potential to be the biggest beneficiaries of an early exit by the Maize and Blue.
Losing prior to the semifinals, or at home to Indiana could drop Michigan to a No. 4 seed. If both of those scenarios played out, that brings a No. 5 seed into play.
Look for the Wolverines to avoid being swept by the Hoosiers for a second consecutive season this weekend. Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the country right now and proved so by destroying the same Illinois defense that managed to shut down Michigan State three days prior.
Also, expect nothing less than two wins from the Wolverines in the Big Ten tournament. Unlike last season, the matchups will be very favorable and gives them a legitimate chance to win both the regular season and postseason titles.
However, if Michigan faces Wisconsin in the title game, do not expect its winning ways to continue. The Badgers have got it going again and the most recent meeting between the two teams exposed a bad matchup.
Beilein's club has no answer for Frank Kaminsky, who is one of the toughest players to guard. A 7-footer with a smooth jump shot can cause problems for any elite big man, let alone a serviceable one like Jordan Morgan.
Come Selection Sunday, look for Michigan to earn a No. 3 seed for its tremendous 2013-14 season.
Note: All RPI rankings are courtesy of ESPN.