With Indiana out of the way, Michigan has now reached a certain point in their season. Every game is The Most Important Game Of The Season, until it's over, at which point it just makes the next one The New Most Important Game Of The Season. So, what will it take to make the NCAA Tournament? Let's look at the numbers, in comparison to the last two Michigan teams.
|Conf Strength (Kenpom)
|Big Ten Tourney Teams
This team has a lot more in common with the 10-seed of 2009 than the squad that didn't even make the NIT last season, but it's still a bit worse. With a 3-2 close to the regular season (no small feat), the numbers should be approximately equal to the Tournament squad, though the Big Ten is much tougher this year than it has been in either of the past two seasons. However, the 2009 team had signature non-conference wins against UCLA (a 6-seed) and Duke (a 2-seed). This year's team has beaten Clemson, Harvard, and Oakland. All three are likely to make the tournament - assuming Harvard exacts revenge on Princeton for their only Ivy League loss - but not as top seeds.
Let's look at some teams from last year that 1) had similar profiles to 201-11 Michigan, and 2) made the tournament. For the purposes of this exercise, only at-large teams from strong conferences are relevant. I've plucked a couple comparable teams from last year's tourney field. For the most part, these were the lowest-seeded teams from their respective conferences.
|2010 NCAA Tournament
|Conf Strength (Kenpom)
|Conf Tourney Teams
A couple notes:
- Georgia Tech was terrible in conference, but had good Kenpom and RPI numbers (they got into the tourney over 10-6 ACC Virginia Tech because the Hokies played a terrible non-conference schedule).
- MIssouri was by far the strongest team to Kenpom. They also had the fewest losses. However, they were one of only two teams to lose in the first round of their conference tournament.
- Louisville is the other first-round loser in their conference tournament. Their strength of schedule and decent finish in the Big Eat (remember, it's a 16-team conference) got them in.
- Minnesota is probably the most comparable to Michigan this year. They have the most losses of any of these teams, but played their way into the tournament by reaching the Big 10 final.
- Florida played in the weakest conference of any of these teams, with the worst Kenpom and RPI numbers (taking strength of schedule into account). However, a winning record - and committee guilt about only three SEC teams getting in - helped them make the tournament.
Though they don't want to admit it (Tim Hardaway dropped epic coachspeak: "Make sure we take it one game at a time. The next game is the most important game."), the players are aware of the opportunity in front of them. The question becomes whether they'll rise to the challenge - as they did two years ago - or fold under the pressure. Here are a few other player quotes about looking to the Tournament:
- Stu Douglass, on whether the team has the tournament in the back of their minds: "We've said it out loud in the locker room. There's no hiding from it."
- Darius Morris, on the team's change after the MSU game: "From there on, we knew what kind of intensity we need to have."
- Darius Morris, on whether the team has talked about making the tournament: "You've gotta visualize your success before it can happen."
- Zack Novak, on watching other Big Ten games on TV: "If I'm watching, I kinda just watch as a fan... I think you usually know what team you need to win to help you out a little bit."
It seems like the team is determined to keep the NCAA Tournament run in the corner of their eye, but in order to achieve it, is focused on the old coaching cliche of "one game at a time."
What does it Mean?
If Michigan goes 3-2 over their final five games - as we'll see, that's no guarantee - their numbers should be comparable to their tournament team of a couple years ago, or Minnesota last year. However, they're doing it in a much stronger Big Ten, Kenpom's #1 conference as opposed to 5th or 4th over the past two years. Reaching .500 in the conference should land them around 6th, and going 1-1 in the Big Ten Tournament would likely be good enough to get into the tournament, given other results breaking in their way.
That means your rooting interests are as follows:
- You want Michigan to win out (obviously). If they go better than 3-2 in their final five, I think they're in. Kempom predicts a win only in the season finale against Michigan State. He gives Michigan less than 25% chance of going 9-9 or better in conference (3-2 or better over the final 5 games).
- Cheer for all of Michigan's non-conference opponents. Bowling Green has a chance to win the MAC, Syracuse can win the Big East, UTEP can win Conference-USA, Clemson can win the ACC(!), Harvard should win the Ivy League, and Oakland should win the Summit League. You want very badly for all of this to happen.
- In the Big Ten, cheer against the teams in Michigan's tier (see handy graphic at right), so the Wolverines finish as high in the standings as possible. This means pull against Illinois, Michigan State, and Minnesota. Penn State probably doesn't have a chance to make the tournament unless they win the Big Ten Tournament, but you still don't want them to finish ahead of Michigan.
- Also in the Big Ten, cheer against Purdue and Illinois, since those are the teams Michigan played once. When they play each other (as they did yesterday and will again on March 1st), you want Purdue to win, because of the above point.