Michigan (9-7, 3-2 Big Ten) hosts Connecticut on Sunday looking for a much-needed signature win to enhance its NCAA tournament resume.
That Michigan is still in the running for the NCAA tournament is a bit optimistic at this point, given that the Wolverine’s biggest win so far was a nine-point home win over then-15th ranked Ohio State.
But with the Big Ten race wide open, a team that gets hot down the stretch could very well play its way into the NCAA tournament.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Michigan is as good a team as Michigan State, Wisconsin, or Purdue, but if the shots are falling, beating those teams is certainly not out of the question.
Michigan’s main problems this season have been shooting woes and lack of leadership—two things that carried the team into the second round of the NCAA tournament last season.
The leadership issue was lost when senior guards C.J. Lee and David Merritt graduated, and John Beilein’s team has struggled to fill that role.
"We're better than this," said Beilein following Michigan’s loss to Northwestern last Sunday, a game in which Michigan led by 17 at halftime. "But it's just a big thing right now, a chemistry we've got to develop on this team."
Perhaps that chemistry was found in the second half of Thursday night’s win over Indiana after Michigan played what was probably its worst half of the season, when it committed 11 turnovers in the first half.
Junior star guard Manny Harris went the first 20 minutes without a made field goal, scoring just four points, all on free throws. His shots were forced and his play was lackadaisical.
The second half began much the same way until Beilein went to perhaps his best coaching move of the season, one that we saw last season—putting Harris on the bench for an extended period of time.
Last year, Beilein sat Harris for the entire overtime period at Iowa. Michigan was outscored 14-4 in that period and fell to 7-8 in Big Ten play. Fans were outraged at the move as it seemingly hurt Michigan’s NCAA tournament chances.
But four days later, Harris exploded for 27 points in an upset of 16th -ranked Purdue, and Michigan would win three of its final five games to earn a spot in the tournament.
This time, Harris emerged from the bench after a few minutes, with Indiana within four, and poured in 17 points the final 12 minutes of the game. Michigan won by 24, outscoring Indiana 21-2 in the final six minutes.
Shots were falling and Michigan looked like it was having as much fun as it has had since the season started. Can it carry that confidence into the rest of the season?
Make no mistake about it, Indiana is not a good team so to say that this was a big win is an exaggeration. But it was a win that Michigan needed and hopes to build upon.
Enter Connecticut (11-5, 2-3 Big East). The nation’s 15th -ranked team began the season 9-2, but has dropped three of its last five since entering the arduous Big East schedule.
Just looking at the rosters, it seems as if Connecticut has a major advantage: size. Five guys stand 6’9” or taller that see minutes for the Huskies, compared to just one—Zach Gibson—for Michigan, and he only averages about 10 minutes per game.
UConn had the same advantage last season with Hasheem Thabeet, the second pick in last year’s NBA Draft, but Michigan hung with the Huskies in Storrs.
This year’s Connecticut team isn’t quite as good and turns the ball over nearly 14 times per game, which plays right into Michigan’s hands. Michigan forces 15.2 turnovers per game.
If Michigan can carry over the momentum from Thursday’s second half and feed off a frenzied “maize out” home crowd, much like during last year’s upset of Duke, it can earn that signature win for its resume.
For a team so in need of a resume boost, this week is do-or-die.
Following Sunday’s game, Michigan travels to No. 13 Wisconsin on Wednesday and No. 6 Purdue on Saturday before returning to Ann Arbor to host No. 7 Michigan State the following Tuesday.
While a win over Connecticut won’t help in the Big Ten race, it would give Michigan confidence heading into those three key conference matchups.
Michigan has shown some signs of progress the past couple of weeks, but has yet to put a full 40 minutes together.
A poor first half last week at Penn State preceded a dominant second half comeback during which Michigan outscored Penn State 38-13 in one stretch en route to a nine-point win.
The following game, Michigan raced out to a 17-point lead against Northwestern, but couldn’t hold on in the second half, falling 68-62.
Then on Thursday, Michigan played a poor first half, but exploded in the second to thump Indiana by 24.
Senior DeShawn Sims is playing the best basketball of his career as of late, carrying Michigan even when Harris is in a funk.
The versatile forward has averaged 20.3 points per game since being held to just 10 against Utah on Dec. 9, and 22.5 points per game in the last four.
His ability to step outside and hit the mid-range jumper and the occasional three has kept Michigan afloat while the guards struggled from the outside.
For Michigan to win on Sunday, it will need another big performance from Sims, and with both he and Harris leading the way, Michigan’s NCAA tournament chances aren’t dead yet.