The dust settled on a weekend in which Michigan Basketball won 4 games in 4 days and it left the Wolverines the Champions of the Big Ten Tournament for the second straight year. The hoopers from Ann Arbor will get a long layoff of at least 11 days, and so , it’s time to look back and then look forward. What this team has already accomplished is rather remarkable, and what it could accomplish is even greater. Let’s delve into an ode to the 2017-18 Michigan Wolverines:
The Road to Big Ten Champs
I want to take you back to two points in time: the first was December 4. Michigan was playing in Columbus against the Ohio State Buckeyes, a team that was picked to be in the bottom of the Big Ten. After jumping out to a 20 point first half lead, the Wolverines collapsed and blew the game. To lose to a team of OSU’s caliber after leading by that much stung. So did the fact that it was just over a week after Michigan football’s disastrous 2017 regular season came to a close. Nothing seemed to be good in the Michigan sports world. The loss dropped Michigan to 7-3. They’d been blown out by North Carolina, a good team, dropped a game in Hawaii to LSU, one they should’ve won, and then this loss to a bad team. That 2016-17 Big Ten Champion and Sweet 16 team seemed to be a long, long time ago and it seemed fair to not expect much from this squad in 2017-18. After all, they had lost alpha dog PG Derrick Walton Jr., veteran forward Zak Irvin, and NBA talent DJ Wilson. This year’s team would surely be on the bubble, maybe in, maybe out of the big dance.
Well, in hindsight, Ohio State turned out to be a lot better than expected, and credit to Chris Holtmann for a great coaching job. But it didn’t change the facts of the time. Michigan would then have a crucial two game stretch where they dug deep to defeat UCLA at home, before getting a gritty win in Austin against the Texas Longhorns. They cruised the remainder of their cupcake December schedule and entered full-on conference play.
This takes me to the second important point in time: February 6. This happened to be my birthday, and for a birthday present, I got Michigan’s ugliest loss of the season, a 61-52 stinker of a loss to Northwestern. It remains Michigan’s only terrible loss and with it, the Wolverines were 19-7, 8-5 in the Big Ten. In between this game and December, Michigan came close to beating Purdue twice, shocked Michigan State in East Lansing, and had a schedule loss in Lincoln. I knew at this point Michigan could go far, but after the loss to Northwestern, it was hard to be confident. At that point there were just 5 games left in the season, and frankly, the schedule was daunting. They had @Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, @Penn State, and @Maryland. Going 2-3 in that stretch could find Michigan on the bubble entering the B1G Tournament and there were many who thought that was possible. So what did they do? They won every game by at least 9 points. It was arguably the defining point of the season, when everything began to click, and Michigan entered NYC red hot.
A Big Ten Beatdown
Over the past 4 days, Michigan showcased the team that they truly are: a team. While the 2013 and 2014 squads had true superstars and NBA lottery draft picks like Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas leading the team, this Michigan team doesn’t have that. Sure, Moritz “Moe” Wagner could leave for the NBA after this season and go in the late first round, but this isn’t HIS team the way it was Stauskas’ or Burke’s team. It’s everyone’s team. On Thursday, it was senior forward Duncan Robinson who hit clutch threes when needed against Iowa. On Friday, it was senior guard Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rakhman who shot the lights out against Nebraska. On Saturday, it was sophomore guard Zavier Simpson who silenced Michigan State star guard Cassius Winston. On Sunday, it was backup sophomore center Jon Teske coming off the bench to score 14 huge points in the pick-and-roll offense. Every game, it’s someone different. And every game, Michigan plays as a team. The Wolverines established themselves as the Big Ten’s best team this weekend. They were the only team to beat each of the other 13 teams once and also beat every other team except Minnesota by at least 9 points in at least one contest. That includes MSU and Purdue and OSU, all likely top 5 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Not just is Michigan winning games, but they’re winning them comfortably. No doubt about it: the Wolverines are the champs. And that is remarkable.
How Much They Can Still Achieve
This Sunday, the NCAA bracket will get released and with it, millions of basketball fans will fill out their picks for the Final Four. You should expect to see quite a bit of people putting the Wolverines in San Antonio for the Final Four. Will that happen? I don’t know, the tournament is far too random to predict and a lot may come down to matchups. But what I do know is that Michigan is capable of beating every other team in the tournament. Over those same last 3 or 4 weeks that I mentioned earlier, Michigan has established themselves as one of the best teams in the whole country. KenPom lists Michigan as the 9th best team overall, and barttorvik.com has Michigan as the best team in the country since the Northwestern loss. Michigan’s adjusted defensive efficiency is 6th in the country and the offense is a not too shabby 31st. That defensive intensity will allow the Wolverines to stay in games even when there are tough matchups.
I expect Michigan to be either a 3 or a 4 seed. For much of the season, RPI, which is the committee’s prefered archaic method to seed teams, has lagged behind other metrics like KenPom when evaluating Michigan, due to the Big Ten’s weak group of teams this year. While that is still the case, the difference is far less glaring. Michigan is now up to 13th in RPI, which is bordering on a 3 seed, and using the committee’s new quadrant system, Michigan is 6-5 in Q1 games, with the potential to get a 7th or 8th Q1 win if UCLA moves into the top 30 or Penn St. moves into the top 75. A 3 seed would obviously be preferred, but this Michigan team isn’t fearing anyone. Not when they’re on this dragon-slaying adventure. They are the dragon that other teams now fear. And how far can they go? I think all the way. How far will they go? That’s another question, and only time will tell. But at this point, they’ve exceeded our wildest expectations. So let’s just see how much farther it lasts, and enjoy it every step of the way.
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