Michigan hoping to beat the odds in Indianapolis

Zach Shaw

In the days following his team’s loss to No. 16 Iowa, Michigan coach John Beilein saw a shaken group of players.

The Wolverines had one last chance to clinch a tournament bid in the regular season and come up short. Michigan even mustered up two comebacks from double-digit deficits to knock on the door, but the Hawkeyes pulled away both times, pushing the Wolverines into a corner.

Not only did Michigan lose a winnable game, but it squandered its last regular season chance to fulfill its NCAA tournament aspirations.

“We were really down after that loss,” Beilein said on Tuesday. “We didn’t play well, we didn’t play smart, we didn’t do a lot of things. So we’re down, and watching the video yesterday even made us feel worse. But now we go out and practice and we say ‘Okay, it’s done. Let’s put it away and move forward.'”

Now on the outside looking in of the NCAA tournament field, most experts believe that Michigan must win two games in the Big Ten Tournament to continue its postseason push. That improbable journey begins Thursday at Noon, when the Wolverines (10-8 Big Ten, 20-11 overall) take on Northwestern in the 8-9 game of the conference tournament.

Losers of four of the last five games and fully understanding that a win over the Wildcats (8-10, 20-11) only sets the table for even tougher opponents, Michigan is looking for exceptional play that has been hard to come by in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, Northwestern has won three straight games games to close out the season since losing to the Wolverines on February 23rd, and finished with its first 20-win regular season in 98 seasons as a program.

“If you just look at the scores of their games and what they were doing, it didn’t surprise me at all to see (them get hot),” Beilein said. “Northwestern obviously has great challenges for us. The last few times we’ve played them if it didn’t come down to the last second, it went down certainly to the last minute.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, and I’m sure they’re excited.”

The not-so-secret recipe to stopping the upstart Wildcats is for Michigan is to contain Alex Olah. The 7-foot senior forward has averaged 22 points per game in his last three games against the Wolverines.

Though a post presence hasn’t been a strong point for Michigan the past two years, junior forward Mark Donnal has thrived at times in Big Ten play, and said Tuesday that he felt prepared for any and all challengers in the postseason.

“It helps us having the experience of going against him,” Donnal said. “I think we have to make some adjustments, but I think we’re more prepared this time.”

Added Beilein: “(Olah) can get you inside just with leverage, but you can tell that he’s played years and years of basketball at a very high level. … He’s a challenge for us.”

Beyond Northwestern, the Wolverines must also overcome the challenge of fatigue. Beginning the season shorthanded and then losing seniors Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, Michigan has carried a thin roster throughout Big Ten play. Junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. is third in the Big Ten with 654 conference minutes played in 18 games, while junior forward Zak Irvin finished seventh with 634.

Both Beilein and his players have admitted in the past month that fatigue has taken its toll. But with nothing left to lose and virtually no margin for error, the Wolverines are forced to forget about fatigue.

“We’ll just throw it all out the window right now. Let’s win the game,” Beilein said. “And (after he first game), we’ve got to find a way. You’ve seen some great epic stories of teams (that make runs). … You’ve just got to find a way to do that, and we’ve got to just go and win one game, one day at a time.

“Whatever it takes, if it takes five guys going 40 minutes, we’ve got to do it.”

As the No. 8 seed in the 14-team tournament, Michigan has a daunting journey just to get to the two-win mark. If the Wolverines can beat Northwestern, they face top-seed Indiana — also ranked 10th in the nation.

The odds are stacked against Michigan picking up two wins in as many days. But in March, there are always exceptions.

“Things can happen in these tournaments,” Beilein said. “These things can just happen, you just get hot, there’s outliers out there. That’s what you go into these tournaments with, that hope. You hope that there’s going to be outliers, that guys are going to have incredible games, and that the ball ounces your way when it needs to.

“It’s a whole new season now, 0-and-0. Let’s go see what we can do.”

  • Carl

    NW is not a good match up for us and I’m very intrigued to see how this team responds with its back up against the wall. We have to find an answer for Olah. I’m beginning to wonder if 2 games would get us back in the feild. We seem to falling fast..

    • Wayman Britt

      Don’t get your hope up about this team responding. Their back has been against the wall the last 6 games and they could not respond. This team is what it is and unfortunately they just don’t have the talent.

      • Fab 5 Legends

        completely agree…we had several chances @ home these last couple weeks to punch our ticket in and we didnt get it done…if they surprise us; great….but i don’t have any hope at this point of the season….hopefully next year with a combination of juniors/seniors we can get into the tourny and go for a run…considering these last 2 seasons have been tough to watch on a talent/toughness/leadership level

  • malcolm bolt

    Good luck to the team, but this season is honestly a disgrace to be in this situatuon. No excuses about injuries needed to senior players. Virtually the same players played this year and very few developed. The only net difference is 3 more wins against Division 1 competition. Also this team was throttled more than last year in its losses. I feel last year was more successful from an effort level than this year.

    Too many excuses made by the fan base, especially being that this is the situation 2 years in a row and less than half a decade removed from being a top 8 program. Indiana lost a top scorer and won the conference title. Good recruits can be accumulated without cheating, please see Wisconsin and Virginia as examples. It’s time this program shape up and get it’s house in order.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    at this point of the season, i have little to no hope for Michigan to make the tournament…we had our opportunities and we didnt respond…NIT Tournament will be a good experience for this group…next year we will have an upper class team finally filled with juniors/seniors…where an NCAA tourny bid is a must…we just dont have the same calibur of skill level players we had in the past, we lack toughness, leadership, im hoping for the best as a UM fan but this season has been slipping ever since the start of February…

  • mistersuits

    If you’ve watched the body language of the players (particularly Caris) and the coaches over the last month, you can see that they are losing these games before they even begin. (For contrast go back and watch some games when McGary was injured or just some of the fiery passion of the far less talented but willing-to-win Novak/Douglass teams)

    • GTFOmycourt

      Good point. There is an obvious lack of support for each other on the bench and between each other on the court.