With the regular season now over, the Wolverines turn their attention to postseason play. First up, will be the Big Ten tournament, with the first round starting on Wednesday March 8. As the eight seed in the conference, Michigan will get a bye and start on Thursday. Their first game will be at noon and will pit them against Illinois for the teams’ third match-up of the season.
Michigan lost to Illinois in their first match-up of the season, 69-85. It was after this game, that Maverick Morgan called the Wolverines a “white collar” team. That comment did not fall on deaf ears, as Michigan would host the Illini just ten days later and earn a 66-57 win. After the first Illinois game, Michigan looked like a talented team that was not playing up to it’s potential. Afterwards, they turned their season around, notching big wins down the stretch to lock up an NCAA tournament berth. Yes, they had a few slip ups (most notably against Ohio State at home), but since that loss, the Wolverines have played at a much higher standard.
Much of that turnaround and toughness can be attributed to Derrick Walton Jr. The senior guard from Detroit has played impressive basketball down the stretch for the Wolverines. Against Nebraska, in the season finale, Walton scored 18 points, while dishing a school record 16 assists. His ability to find his open teammates has been phenomenal. Throughout the Big Ten season, Walton surpassed double digit scoring in all but two games. He also recorded four double-doubles. The first of which came in the win over Illinois.
Of course, Walton hasn’t done it completely by himself. Michigan has a handful of players who can get hot and score a ton of points for the Wolverines. Moe Wagner’s 22 points in the first half against Purdue is a clear indicator of this. Wagner and frontcourt mate, DJ Wilson have taken immense strides in their offensive abilities this year. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has scored in double figures in eight of the last nine games. He was able to take a step up for the Wolverines at the end of last season during postseason play. This year he elevated his game much earlier. Duncan Robinson is always good to come off the bench and rain a couple threes on opponents. And of course, Zak Irvin, averaging 12.6 points for the Wolverines, has regained his scoring touch the last few weeks as well. When Michigan’s offense is on, they are extremely hard to stop.
After really scuffling in the middle of their Big Ten slate. Illinois was able to rattle off five wins in six games down the stretch, and four straight. That is up until their final contest against Rutgers, which may have halted all their momentum. Michigan is safely in the NCAA tournament field, but Illinois is probably one of the first few teams outside looking in at this point. Malcolm Hill (17.2 points a game) and the Illini will be looking for a strong win over Michigan to boost their tourney chances. This team has a lot more riding on the outcome of this match-up.
The road ahead
As stated above, Michigan will start with a game against Illinois on Thursday. If they win that game, they get another look at the Big Ten’s top team and #1 seed Purdue. If they get past the Boilermakers, they will likely face #4 seed Minnesota or #5 seed Michigan State. The final would most likely feature either #2 Wisconsin or #3 Maryland as Michigan’s opponent.
Can Michigan win the Big Ten tournament? After watching their complete dominance of Nebraska, anything seems possible. What if the road to the championship was against: Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State, and Wisconsin? The last time Michigan faced each of those teams, they came away with W’s. They definitely have a shot. Michigan has a solid resume, RPI, BPI, and SOS metrics, and clearly pass the eye test. They are probably an 8 or 9 seed at this point. Regardless of what happens in the Big Ten tournament, they will be in the Big Dance. The question is, how high of a seed can they get?
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