Many people have many different opinions on what Michigan needs to do to make the NCAA Tournament. However, I’m pretty confident that a .500 record in conference paired with a first-round win in the Big Ten Tournament would be enough. A win over Iowa on Sunday would’ve given Michigan an excellent shot at a .500 record in-conference. As a result, the Iowa-game was to be quite possibly the most important game the Michigan basketball program has played in 11 years.
One of the factors that Michigan had going for it before Sunday was the absence of any “bad losses” on its resume. A loss to Iowa would’ve changed that. As much as I wanted to believe that Michigan’s obvious superiority over Iowa this season meant something, I knew that “at Carver-Hawkeye Arena” meant much more. Michigan does not win road games against Big Ten teams that are better than “really, really bad.” Iowa has struggled in Todd Lickliter’s second season but the Hawkeyes have been a different team at home having beaten Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Indiana, while losing to Minnesota and Purdue by three and four points, respectively. Michigan, on the other hand, had been atrocious on the road losing to Illinois, Penn St., Ohio St., and Purdue by an average of 16.5 points—not to mention trailing Indiana (1-13 in the Big Ten) by 20 at the half. To summarize…Iowa had been competitive against good teams at home all season. Michigan had been uncompetitive against non-Indiana teams on the road all season. Those trends should’ve been the “canary in the coal mine” for anyone expecting an ‘M’ win. They were for me. This was a game that I did not want to watch. My heart was clearly anticipating it but my brain knew what was coming. Thankfully—and believe me I knew how fortunate I was at the time—I was bailed out at the last minute by a prior commitment that I had forgotten about. I had never been so happy to miss a Michigan sporting event in my life. Nothing that transpired in that game shocked me in the slightest. Sometimes, when you know what’s going to happen—and it isn’t good—you’re better off not putting yourself through it. Sanity should always trump fandom.
Michigan lost in brutally typical fashion and a minor controversy ensued. A lot has been made of John Beilein’s decision to pull Manny Harris in overtime. Per usual, the interested crowds have largely diverged into two groups: 1). OMG Worst Coach Ever! and 2). OMG Worst Player Ever! I don’t get into that stuff. The extremes on either side of an argument are rarely the best answer. Losing to this Iowa-team in a must-win game is unacceptable. Going to overtime against this Iowa-team in a must-win game is unacceptable. Falling down by 12 points in the first 10 minutes of the game to this Iowa-team in a must-win game is unacceptable. This game was lost well before Beilein’s decision. In fact, this game was probably lost before Michigan even left for Iowa City. There is a statistic from this game that should blow the minds of every person who has ever played basketball. Due to injuries, Iowa basically used five players the entire game. Four Hawkeyes played the whole game. The other guy played 38 of 45 minutes. It is astounding that the Michigan basketball program is not to the point where it can easily win a game against a team in that sort of predicament. None of the stuff that went on at the end of the game or in overtime matters to me. Sure, Big Ten refs suck poopsicles. If you are the better team and you play like it, referees cannot impact the game with one or two calls no matter how horrendous they are. Michigan lost because it played like garbage for 45 minutes against a weaker team—not because of one bad shot or decision.
I’m not concerned with one or two plays in a game. I’m concerned with how and why Michigan continues to allow the venue to dictate how well it’s going to play. There is absolutely no excuse for Michigan’s massive discrepancy in level of play on the road compared to home. College basketball has historically seen a huge difference in home and road performance but Michigan has taken it to a new level. It has been six years since Michigan won on the road against a team that finished above .500 in the Big Ten. Every other team in the conference—including both Northwestern and Penn St. this year—have at least one such win in the last three years. Seven of those ten teams have done it in the last year. Iowa won’t finish above .500 in conference but losing to a clearly inferior team in a crucial game is a microcosm of what has kept Michigan out of the NCAA Tournament for 11 years. It’s tough to make the tournament when you continually and predictably fall apart in virtually every road game.
Believe it or not, the plan for this post was to simply explore Michigan’s remaining “dead as a doornail” chances at getting an NCAA Tournament bid. Sorry for that rather lengthy detour but, here you go…While the Iowa-loss changes the likelihood of achieving what is necessary to get a bid; it doesn’t change what is actually necessary, in my opinion. If Michigan can get to .500 in-conference and avoid an upset in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, then it is tourney-bound. The problem is that Michigan’s remaining conference games are home against Purdue and on the road at Wisconsin and at Minnesota. We’re more likely to see Heath Ledger in the next Batman installment than a Michigan-win at Wisconsin. That means ‘M’ must win at home against Purdue and at Minnesota. Earlier in the season, Michigan was up in the second half at Purdue when Manny Harris got ejected for teaching Chris Kramer a lesson in personal space. Purdue is a good team but provides Michigan with a much more favorable personnel matchup than teams like Michigan St, Wisconsin, and Ohio St. Purdue is clearly the better team but I would put that game at 50/50 considering it’s in Ann Arbor.
If Michigan beats Purdue, then it will likely be playing at Minnesota in the season finale in a de facto elimination game for both teams. That game will have all the intrigue and excitement of a tournament game. Except, Michigan will have absolutely no chance of winning. We’re more likely to see Tony Soprano walk out of Holsten’s Diner than see ‘M’ come away with a victory at Williams Arena.
Michigan does not win road games against good teams. Maybe that will change some year but Sunday’s ineptitude in Iowa is proof enough for me that this is most definitely not that year. Obviously, with Michigan needing to win two road games against good teams one week to make the tournament, I believe the chances are very close to nil. If Michigan is, in fact, NIT-bound, then fans will have the choice of deciding whether this season is simply another meaningless disappointment in a seemingly never ending series of letdowns or a replica of the ’84 season that laid the groundwork for the revitalization of the Michigan basketball program. I’m going with the latter not because it’s the most logical but because the alternative is too depressing to consider.