ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan basketball team polished off a 9-2 non-conference slate this weekend, finishing with four solid wins and, more importantly, no disastrous losses.
Overall, the Wolverines are 10-3 heading into the new year. The first phase of the season was capped off Sunday with an easy win over UMass Lowell.
Juwan Howard couldn’t have asked for a much better start in his first two months as head coach of Michigan. The team has played one of the toughest schedules in the country and racked up five wins over teams ranked top 50 in Kenpom -- No. 6 Gonzaga, No. 18 Iowa, No. 43 Iowa State, No. 46 North Carolina and No. 49 Creighton.
Few teams can boast a win as strong as Michigan’s neutral court dominance over Gonzaga, which is currently ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. The Wolverines smashed the Bulldogs by 18 points to take home the Battle 4 Atlantis crown.
It’s been a struggle since then, though. Michigan got crushed by then-No. 1 Louisville on the road, dropped another road game against Illinois and then lost at home to Oregon, another top 10 team.
Losing three of four games but a damper on a resume that was briefly the best in college basketball. But Michigan avoided disaster by bouncing back with wins over Presbyterian and UMass Lowell by a combined 68 points.
With those wins, Michigan avoided adding a disastrous loss to its resume, going 5-0 against Appalachian State, Elon, Houston Baptist, Presbyterian and UMass Lowell. While the opener got very uncomfortable at the end, Michigan won those games by an average of 27.8 points.
Those wins are significant considering the number of brutal losses for teams around the country. On Saturday, UCLA lost a home game to Cal State Fullerton -- a previously 3-10 team. Kentucky lost to Evansville. Duke lost to Stephen F. Austin. Big Ten foe Nebraska lost to UC Riverside, Southern Utah, Georgia Mason and North Dakota during a disastrous first half.
Though many of those games won’t be remembered by March, the losses stick on teams’ resumes when NCAA Tournament seeding rolls around. Michigan won’t have to worry about one of those games weighing it down.
The Wolverines still have three chances at a really bad loss. While 12 of the 14 Big Ten teams rank in the top 52 of Kenpom, Northwestern (No. 107) and Nebraska (No. 134) could still be resume killers. Michigan travels to Northwestern in February and plays Nebraska twice.
Louisville and Oregon are both top 10 teams, but Michigan’s loss to Illinois was a bit of a disappointment, considering the game wasn’t that close for much of the second half. It’s fair to wonder how Michigan will perform in its remaining nine road games, many of which will be against NCAA Tournament teams.
An injury to Isaiah Livers is also of major concern. Livers injured himself against Presbyterian and was forced to sit out Sunday. It’s unclear how long he’ll be sidelined, but with a trip to Michigan State, a home game against Purdue and then back-to-back road tests at Minnesota and Iowa, this couldn’t have come at a worse time in the regular season.
Michigan has solidified itself as a fairly safe NCAA Tournament team, but can it be more than a middling seed? We’ll find out over the next few weeks as Michigan faces more road tests and Livers’ situation comes more clearly into view.