Last year, Ohio State was the measuring stick for the Michigan basketball team in the Big Ten.
The Wolverines looked like they might be a better team than originally thought after playing the Buckeyes tough on their home court before the then-No. 1 team in the country pulled away for a 62-53 victory in early February.
From there, Michigan went on a 6-2 run (winning eight of their last 11 regular season games) to go into the Big Ten tournament as one of the hottest teams in the conference, while also convincing the NCAA selection committee that they deserved to be among the top
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But just as John Beilein's team may have been gaining confidence after ending the season with wins at Minnesota, versus Michigan State, and over Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan again ran into Ohio State. And for the third time in the season, the Buckeyes swatted down the young Wolverines (though it took a late 18-3 run to put the game away).
After Sunday's disappointing 64-49 loss in Columbus in this season's first match-up versus Ohio State, can Michigan rebound yet again to finish its season strong? Losing to the Buckeyes knocked the Wolverines out of a first-place tie in the Big Ten, but they're still in a good position tied for third with Wisconsin.
Sunday's game was the fourth in a six-game stretch that's easily the toughest portion of Michigan's schedule. Considering three of those contests were road games at Arkansas, Purdue and OSU, compiling a 2-2 record doesn't look too bad. But the Wolverines still have a home game against Indiana and have to travel to East Lansing. While losses in both games probably wouldn't hurt their NCAA Tournament chances, a Big Ten title could probably be kissed goodbye.
But Michigan could easily win both of those games, which could propel them into another late-season surge and put them into the tournament on a hot streak once again. The Wolverines barely lost in their first meeting with the Hoosiers, and had a chance to tie or win the game late. They survived another squeaker against the Spartans on their home court, but were in control for most of that game until MSU made a late run.
One thing that would obviously help Michigan's chances in the next two games is for point guard Trey Burke to rediscover his shooting touch. Since an excellent 20-point, 8-for-11 shooting performance against MSU, Burke has scored a combined 32 points in his last three games. During that stretch, he's shot 35 percent (14-for-40) from the field.
On the bright side, Burke also dished out 17 assists, so he's making sure to get his teammates involved when his shot isn't falling. But the Wolverines are clearly a better team when he's scoring, too.
Besides, Burke isn't the only Michigan player struggling with his shot. Tim Hardaway Jr. was a major factor in the team's late run last season, emerging as a second scoring and outside shooting threat to go with Darius Morris. But with the exception of his 19-point performance against Purdue, Hardaway has had a hard time putting the ball in the basket. During Big Ten play, he's shot 50 percent or better only three times in 10 games. Three-pointers have been a particular problem for him, with him hitting more than two in a game just twice during the conference season.
However, what Michigan might be lacking in outside scoring punch, they may be compensating for with improved rebounding and interior defense. With Ohio State winning by 15 points, it could be reasonably expected that Jared Sullinger had a huge game for the Buckeyes. After all, the Michigan frontcourt has struggled against bigger players, such as Virginia's Mike Scott and Indiana's Cody Zeller. Yet somehow, Sullinger scored only 13 points against the likes of Jordan Morgan and Evan Smotrycz.
Of course, OSU didn't need a big game from Sullinger to win convincingly, so maybe the defensive performance of the Wolverines frontcourt is overstated.
But if Michigan can get through this current six-game stretch with three or four wins, their final seven games — which include match-ups against Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State — give them to opportunity to finish strong yet again. That span includes a rematch with Ohio State. And if the Wolverines can shoot better — that is to say, if they can shoot at all — an upset over the Buckeyes at home isn't out of the question. (Zero points from Zack Novak on Sunday? Could he be shut out a second time?)
Also important are two games against Illinois. Michigan split with them last season, with that win coming in the Big Ten tourney. Another split this year seems like a reasonable prediction. But with the Fighting Illini struggling to a 4-4 conference record thus far, this might give Michigan a chance to steal one more key road win to go with the one they nabbed at Purdue.
As yet, Michigan hasn't put together a sustained run of success that might give fans a little more confidence. But they also haven't suffered through any long losing streaks as they did last year, when they lost six in a row and seven of eight. With the schedule as currently laid out, that doesn't figure to happen either.
But wins over Indiana and MSU could be the difference in finishing this season on a truly high note, winning the Big Ten and scoring a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. February could be a very good month for the Wolverines.