Apologies for the lack of posts over the weekend. My internet situation was... non-existent. There should be a good number of posts this week, and Brian returns tomorrow.
The Michigan men's hoops team has struggled to start the 2009-10 season; that's no secret. Entering conference play at 6-5 is no way to ensure an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. While some analysts, including ESPN's Jay Bilas, have said that the Wolverines still have a chance at the tourney, they have a long and tough road ahead of them. The Wolverines will have to have a good season in the Big Ten in order to land a second-straight bid to the Big Dance.
A strong start to 2010 would certainly help grease the wheels for a Wolverine run to the top half of the Big Ten Conference. Fortunately, it looks like such a run may be in the cards, as Michigan gets a relatively soft slate to start the new year.
Dec. 31 @Indiana
The first year of the Tom Crean era in Bloomington was a horrorshow for the Hoosiers, as they easily finished in last place in the Big Ten. Year 2 was supposed to go much better, as Crean picked up such novelties as "scholarship players" for his squad. However, after a decent start, the Hoosiers have struggled, dropping a game to Loyola Maryland last week. Michigan needs to steal a couple road games in the Big Ten, and heading on the road to play one of the worst teams in the conference can spark a run.
January 3 Ohio State
The Buckeyes started the year as one of the favorites to take home the Big Ten crown. They've still had some success in the non-conference portion of the schedule, but going may be a bit tougher in the league - especially since they'll be without their star player, Evan Turner, for the first few games. Michigan is lucky to get the Buckeyes before Turner returns from some fractured vertebrae. Stealing one from a team that should still make the NCAA tournament would be a huge resume-booster.
January 7 @Penn State
The Nittany Lions were a bubble team last year, and although they just missed out on the NCAA tournament, they still did the conference proud by winning the NIT (We are! Number sixty-five!). This year, they're struggling without the likes of Stanley Pringle and Jamele Cornley. Talor Battle is still capable of winning games all by himself, but if the Michigan defense is as improved as it looked against Kansas, Michigan may just be able to steal a second road game to start conference play.
January 10 Northwestern
Northwestern came into the season looking to clinch their first ever(!) NCAA tournament berth. Things looked grim when their best player, Kevin Coble, was ruled out for the season, along with fellow star Jeff Ryan. The Wildcats were not deterred, however, starting their season 10-1, determined to make the tournament despite the personnel losses. Although they've run out to one of the best starts in Northwestern hoops history, they haven't done it against the toughest of schedules, and Michigan should be able to slow down the Wildcats in Crisler.
January 14 Indiana
The Wolverines face off against Indiana for the second time in 15 days as Martin Luther King weekend kicks off. The game in Bloomington should tell us a lot about how this one will go. Without looking up the evidence, MIchigan seemed to play much better against teams when facing them for the second time last season, a testament to John Beilein's coaching ability. As long as the Wolverines come to play, this game should result in a 2-0 mark against the Hoosiers on the year.
Non-conference Interlude: January 17 Connecticut
After the chance to (hopefully) build up some confidence, Michigan hosts the always-tough UConn Huskies. The Wolverines hung with Jim Calhoun's squad last year, and Hasheem Thabeet ain't walkin' through that door this time. This will be Michigan's final chance to make a statement in the non-conference schedule, so don't expect them to sleepwalk through the first 30 minutes like they did against Boston College. UConn will be a tough test, but a winnable game.
After UConn, the slate gets considerably tougher for Michigan. back-to-back road trips to Madison and West Lafayette will force Michigan to get right back into the mindset of winning tough non-conference games. These aren't impossible games, either, but they're much tougher than the start to conference play. Building up a 5-0 cushion will not only guarantee a better conference record, but hopefully also build the confidence necessary to pull a road upset.