If Michigan basketball wants Big Ten title, it has to beat the best over next 2 weeks

Wolverines return to court with wins over Wisconsin, Rutgers

Isaiah Livers #2 of the Michigan Wolverines and Caleb McConnell #22 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights go for a loose ball at Crisler Arena on February 18, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich.Michigan basketball’s first week back on the court looked pretty much the same as all the weeks before its three-week shutdown.

The Wolverines won two more games against guaranteed NCAA Tournament teams, first erasing a 14-point deficit at Wisconsin and then sleepwalking to a seven-point victory against Rutgers at home.

Franz Wagner #21 of the Michigan Wolverines drives to the basket against Myles Johnson #15 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights during the game at Crisler Arena on February 18, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

Now, heading into the final weeks of the regular season, Michigan owns a two-game lead over Illinois and a three-game lead over Ohio State in the loss column of the Big Ten standings.

But this race is far from over.

Since Michigan has only lost once in its first 16 games, it might seem unlikely it would drop enough games for this lead to vanish in under three weeks. The road is about to get much, much tougher, though.

Four teams have separated themselves to form the top tier in the conference: Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Iowa. Those teams occupy the 3-6 spots in both the Kenpom and NET rankings. The drop-off from them to the rest of the conference is larger than many might realize.

Here’s the problem for Michigan: It hasn’t played a single game against one of the other three teams in that tier.

Illinois, Ohio State and Iowa have all played each other once, meaning they have two games played in that top tier, while Michigan has none.

Over the next 16 days, Michigan will play on the road against Ohio State, host Iowa and likely have its home game against Illinois rescheduled. On top of those games, Michigan has road trips to Indiana (a desperate, NCAA-caliber team) and Michigan State (a hated in-state rival).

Mike Smith #12 of the Michigan Wolverines defends Jacob Young #42 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Crisler Arena on February 18, 2021 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (2021 Getty Images)

Michigan won’t have a single gimme through the end of the regular season, and that’s because the original schedule and the shutdown teamed up to form an incredibly back-loaded last couple of weeks.

If Michigan wants to win a Big Ten title, it needs to get through this stretch with only one or two losses, because Illinois and Ohio State have won six and seven games in a row, respectively.

It’s pretty obvious Michigan is one of the better teams in the country, but does it really belong in the conversation with Gonzaga and Baylor? Is it really the best of the rest beyond those two? Until the Wolverines play the top teams in the league, we won’t know for sure.

Big Ten titles don’t come easy, especially when the conference is this loaded. If Juwan Howard wants to hang his first banner as a coach, his team is definitely going to have to earn it.

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