Photo Credit: AnnArbor.com
Expectations were slim to none heading into this season. The last off season was filled with fluff pieces, top 25 rankings, and preseason All-American hype. This off season was the opposite; an array of disappointments and calamities. Michigan lost Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, the two players that accounted for over half its production. Junior guard Laval Lucas-Perry was dismissed from the team for mysterious reasons. The assistant coaching staff was completely gutted and revamped. Michigan’s tour of Belgium netted just one win to three losses. The list goes on and on and, from April to November, there was really nothing positive to say.
Fast forward two months through the majority of non-conference play and this year’s team has the same record, 10-2, as the last Michigan team that made the NCAA tournament. A 10-2 record is good enough to get people talking, even if a majority of those 10 wins were over subpar opponents. Whether it’s fair or not, phrases like “NCAA tournament” and “bubble team” are cautiously being thrown around by Michigan supporters.
Is it fair to deem Michigan a bubble team right now? Probably not. The first twelve games have created more questions than answers, but they’ve avoided all of the bad answers. If this team was 9-3 or 8-4 we’d have plenty of answers, they just wouldn’t be the ones we want to hear. Instead, Michigan enters the Big Ten season with a ray of hope and an opportunity to surprise.
At this point NCAA dreams are just that, dreams. Michigan has a handful of solid wins – at Clemson, Harvard, and Oakland – but they have yet to register a victory that would count as a “quality win” on Selection Sunday. The Wolverines have zero wins versus the RPI or Pomeroy top 50 and have only played one game versus an RPI top 50 opponent. Michigan’s strength of schedule ranks right around 200 and there aren’t many metrics beyond overall record that lend credence to the notion that this is an NCAA team. That’s not to say that couldn’t change rapidly.
Before the season started I drew comparisons to John Beilein’s 2007 West Virginia squad. That team got off to a 10-1 start and eventually fell just short of the NCAA tournament before winning the NIT. West Virginia was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East that year and had a team full of freshmen and sophomores that most had never heard of. Many considered that season one of John Beilein’s best of his career.
Michigan’s next 19 games won’t be particularly easy – few of them are any easier than the first 12 games of the season – but there will be plenty of opportunity to improve the NCAA resume. That includes a rash of top 50 opponents and three games versus two of the top three teams in the country. When you add in road trips to hostile Big Ten arenas like the Kohl Center, Breslin Center, or Assembly Hall, it starts to become clear just how large of a challenge lies ahead.
These are Pomeroy’s latest projected win probability graphs for Michigan. His most likely outcome is 17-14 (7-11), a figure that certainly sounds reasonable and would likely put Michigan in the NIT. There looks to be just over a 20% chance that Michigan wins the 19 games that it would take to at least get the in the bubble conversation.
Home wins are the key. Winning games on your home court in the Big Ten is similar to treading water. If you win them, you stay alive. If you lose, you start drowning rapidly. Michigan will be in the mix if it able to win a majority of their games at home. That means beating a team like Purdue, Michigan State, or someone else of that caliber on your home floor. It also means not being upset by a lower-half team at home. Then it comes down to winning on the road. Coincidentally, three of the road games that Michigan has an above average chance to win r(Penn State, Iowa, and Minnesota) fall in the second half of the conference schedule.
The start of Big Ten play has been a rude awakening for recent Michigan teams. One game two years ago versus Wisconsin stands out. The Wolverines entered that game with their heads held high, touting a top 25 ranking, before watching the Badgers surgically dismantle their defense in Crisler Arena. The Badgers opened up a double digit lead by the second media timeout and Michigan was never able to make it much closer.
We don’t know how this team will react to adversity. They responded to their losses in Atlantic City with a win at Clemson but that’s all we’ve seen. There will undoubtedly be ups and downs throughout the conference slate and this young team’s ability to cope with the highs and lows will be the story line to watch. Ready or not, the games begin on Tuesday afternoon.