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Next 26 days will determine if Michigan basketball makes NCAA Tournament

Wolverines have five of next eight games at home

David DeJulius #0 of the Michigan Wolverines is congratulated by teammates Eli Brooks #55, Franz Wagner #21 and Zavier Simpson #3 during the 2nd overtime of a college basketball game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Crisler Center on January 9, 2020 in Ann Arbor, MI.  The Michigan Wolverines won the game 84-78 over the Purdue Boilermakers.
David DeJulius #0 of the Michigan Wolverines is congratulated by teammates Eli Brooks #55, Franz Wagner #21 and Zavier Simpson #3 during the 2nd overtime of a college basketball game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Crisler Center on January 9, 2020 in Ann Arbor, MI. The Michigan Wolverines won the game 84-78 over the Purdue Boilermakers. (2020 Aaron J. Thornton)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – So far, Juwan Howard’s debut as Michigan basketball coach has been a tale of two stretches.

In November, Michigan took the sport by storm, ripping off seven straight wins, including a Battle 4 Atlantis title that required victories over Iowa State, a fully loaded North Carolina team and since-unbeaten Gonzaga. Toss is a home win over Creighton and the Wolverines had the best resume in the nation.

But as soon as Michigan hit the road, the team from the Bahamas disappeared. A loss at then-No. 1 Louisville was completely understandable. There’s no shame in losing at Illinois this year either.

Michigan should have protected home court against Oregon, though. Some costly mistakes and questionable substitutions caused that game to slip away in overtime.

The entire Big Ten will likely lose in East Lansing, but Michigan turned around a week later and lost at Minnesota and Iowa back-to-back. Individually, these losses aren’t a big deal. Together, they’ve knocked Michigan out of the top 25 and effectively eliminated it from Big Ten title contention. What once appeared to be a slam-dunk NCAA Tournament team has lost six of 10 games and is facing a stretch of what appear to be must-win games.

Head coach Juwan Howard of the Michigan Wolverines reacts during a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Crisler Arena on January 09, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 84-78 in double overtime.
Head coach Juwan Howard of the Michigan Wolverines reacts during a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Crisler Arena on January 09, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Michigan won the game 84-78 in double overtime. (2020 Getty Images)

Big Ten teams are 43-9 at home in conference play. So far, Michigan is a perfect 2-0 at home and 0-4 on the road. The key to remaining competitive in the Big Ten and solidifying a spot in the Field of 64 is winning at home.

Michigan was a bit unlucky to play on the road four times in its first six conference games. Fortunately, five of the next eight games will come at the Crisler Center. The only two road games during that stretch will be against the clear worst teams in the Big Ten.

Michigan hosts Penn State

Penn State will pay a visit to Ann Arbor on Wednesday night. The Nittany Lions are among the 11 teams jumbled together in the middle of the standings. Michigan State is the clear favorite at the top, while Nebraska and Northwestern don’t have a prayer of winning the regular-season title.

Like Michigan, Penn State is winless on the road in conference play, losing to Ohio State, Rutgers and Minnesota. The Nittany Lions beat Maryland, Iowa and Ohio State at home.

Penn State looks likely to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, but if it wants to compete for a double bye in the Big Ten, it needs to steal a road game to make up for a home loss to Wisconsin.

Michigan simply can’t let that happen Wednesday night.

Coming off a dominant 14-point win over then-No. 21 Ohio State over the weekend, Penn State has put its three-game losing streak in the rear view mirror.

Penn State is currently alone in ninth place in the Big Ten standings. Michigan is alone in 11th place. Wednesday should be fraught with desperation on both sides.

Next seven games

The Penn State game is very indicative of the level of difficulty Michigan should expect over the next month.

The Wolverines will host five teams in Ann Arbor. Those five teams rank eighth, 12th, 22nd, 30th and 41st in Kenpom. In other words, they’re all either NCAA Tournament locks or hopefuls.

Michigan also has a neutral court game against No. 24 Rutgers, which is ranked for the first time in 41 years. The Scarlett Knights are 14-4 and alone in third place in the Big Ten. It’s a really bad year for Michigan to play Rutgers on the road and at Madison Square Garden.

Zavier Simpson #3 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates after making a three-point shot during the overtime period of a college basketball game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Crisler Center on January 9, 2020 in Ann Arbor, MI.  The Michigan Wolverines won the game 84-78 in double overtime over the Purdue Boilermakers.
Zavier Simpson #3 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates after making a three-point shot during the overtime period of a college basketball game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Crisler Center on January 9, 2020 in Ann Arbor, MI. The Michigan Wolverines won the game 84-78 in double overtime over the Purdue Boilermakers. (2020 Aaron J. Thornton)

As mentioned above, the only two road games during this stretch will come against Nebraska and Northwestern, teams that are a combined 3-13 in the conference. Those games will be difficult for a Michigan team that has yet to win on the road, though.

Nebraska is 2-2 at home in conference play, with wins over Purdue and Iowa. Northwestern’s only Big Ten win came at home against Nebraska, but it has played Michigan State and Maryland tough in its own building -- a building that has been a house of horrors for Michigan in recent years.

This stretch is a great opportunity for Michigan. It could win every single one of the next eight games. The drawback is it could also lose each of the next eight.

Should we expect Michigan to beat MSU at home? Probably not. Rutgers on a neutral court? It’s a tossup at best. A 6-2 record during this stretch would put the Wolverines at 17-8 on the season and in great position to lock down an NCAA Tournament appearance before heading to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament.

Closing stretch

These next eight games are so critical for Michigan because wins could be few and far between the final three weeks of the season.

Michigan plays four of its final six games away from home, with road tests against Rutgers, Purdue, Ohio State and Maryland. There’s also a home game against Wisconsin in there, and the Badgers have been the only team able to win on the road -- knocking off both Ohio State and Penn State in league play.

The final six games have “2-4” written all over them for Michigan, and that’s not really a knock on the Wolverines considering how difficult it is to win on the road this season. That’s why winning as many games as possible before Feb. 19 should be such a priority.

Isaiah Livers injury

The obvious elephant in the room for Michigan continues to be the injury to Isaiah Livers, who has been sidelined since the first half of the Dec. 21 game against Presbyterian.

Livers went up for a dunk and came down walking very gingerly. He limped heavily to and from the locker room and was ruled out with a groin injury. In the five games since, Michigan is 2-3 with a double overtime home win against Purdue and a win over UMass Lowell.

Michigan badly needs Livers to return, but the most frustrating part for fans -- and, I’m sure, Livers -- is there doesn’t seem to be any concrete timeline for when that will happen.

An injured Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines looks on from the bench during a college basketball game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Crisler Center on January 9, 2020 in Ann Arbor, MI. The Michigan Wolverines won the game 84-78 over the Purdue Boilermakers.
An injured Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines looks on from the bench during a college basketball game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Crisler Center on January 9, 2020 in Ann Arbor, MI. The Michigan Wolverines won the game 84-78 over the Purdue Boilermakers. (Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

When Franz Wagner went down with a wrist injury in the off-season, pretty much everyone circled the Battle 4 Atlantis for his potential return. Sure enough, that was the first time he suited up for the Maize and Blue.

There’s much more uncertainty with Livers. He participated in warm-ups before the Iowa game, but Howard hasn’t said anything like, “He’s getting close,” or, “We’ll see if he can suit up for Penn State.”

This feels a bit like the circumstances surrounding the Caris LeVert injury in 2015-16. LeVert was the unquestioned best player on that roster and played in the first 14 games, leading Michigan to an 11-3 record.

Without him, Michigan limped to a 9-8 finish, barely squeezing into the NCAA Tournament as one of the First Four in Dayton.

LeVert returned to the court for one game in mid-February vs. Purdue, but it was clear he just wasn’t right. He ended up shutting it down after that game.

Livers is one of Michigan’s best players, and it’s clear Michigan desperately needs him on both ends of the court.


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