With eight games left in the Big Ten season, including road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State that will be nearly impossible to win, Michigan can start worrying about its postseason future.
Not the NCAA tournament. That dream died long ago, unless the Wolverines win the Big Ten tournament. The way Michigan has played lately, losing four of its last five to slink to 11-11 overall, even the NIT looks out of reach.
Because its season-opening win against Division II Northern Michigan is discounted from its final record, Michigan needs to go 5-3 over the final month to stay above .500 and qualify for the postseason.
The Wolverines very likely will decide their tournament fate in the next two weeks. They are home against No. 16 Wisconsin on Saturday, then play back-to-back road games at Minnesota and Iowa.
All three games are winnable, but Michigan would be wise to take care of home court -- it's just 1-6 in true road games this year.
If the Wolverines don't win at least two of their next three games, chances are they'll need to upset one of the Big Ten's premier teams in the final 10 days to salvage something from this miserable season.
NORTHWESTERN 67, MICHIGAN 52: Michigan's season-long offensive slump continued with a 32.7-percent shooting night against one of the Big Ten's worst defensive teams.
Manny Harris and Darius Morris scored 11 points each for the Wolverines, who were held to 22 points in the second half.
Drew Crawford scored 17 points to lead four players in double figures for Northwestern. The Wildcats swept the season series against Michigan for the first time since 1966-67.
--When most projected Michigan for the NCAA Tournament back in November, they saw a roster that had two of the best players in the Big Ten (Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims) and a collection of solid 3-point shooters.
Harris and Sims have done their part statistically. Each ranked among the league's top-four scorers and top-seven rebounders entering the week. But the Wolverines are collectively one of the worst offensive teams in the league. At the midpoint of the conference season, Michigan ranked last in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage and 10th in field-goal shooting.
Sims and Harris aren't shooting great from 3-point land, 32 and 28 percent, respectively. But the real anchor has been the shooting of Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, role players whose biggest offensive worth is making 3-pointers. Entering the week, Douglass and Novak ranked first and third in 3-point attempts -- Harris was second -- yet neither was connecting on even 31-percent of his shots from behind the arc.
The simple solution to Michigan's offensive woes is to stop launching so many 3-pointers -- they airballed two triples while clinging to a lead in the final minutes of a loss Jan. 26 to Michigan State. But it's not that easy. Harris and Sims are the only Wolverines athletic enough to create their own shot, and Michigan coach John Beilein's offense is built around the long ball. Beyond that, the Wolverines don't have a post presence other than Sims and don't have a true point guard to effectively run their fast break.
In retrospect, Michigan's shooting struggles aren't a huge surprise. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in 3-pointers made last year, but shot just 33 percent from behind the arc -- 10th in the league.
--Assistant coach Jerry Dunn returned from his month-long leave of absence earlier this week, but in an administrative capacity. Dunn cannot take part in coaching or scouting, per NCAA rules. Jeff Meyer, formerly Michigan's administrative specialist, took over Dunn's duties as an assistant and will remain in that role.
--G Manny Harris returned from his one-game suspension with solid performances Jan. 26 against Michigan State and Jan. 30 against Iowa. Harris had 16 points, five assists and five steals off the bench against the Spartans, and scored 20 points to go with six rebounds against Iowa. Harris missed the Purdue game after an undisclosed practice incident.
--F DeShawn Sims was averaging 9.8 rebounds over Michigan's previous five games before Tuesday night's loss to Northwestern, easily the best stretch of his career. He had seven double-digit rebounding games this season entering the week -- one more than he had his first three years combined -- and has helped Michigan at least remain competitive on the boards. The Wolverines still ranked last in the Big Ten in rebound margin before facing Northwestern, but they were coming off their best rebounding game of the year. Michigan dominated Iowa on the glass, 44-31, and had 19 offensive boards.
ON THE SPOT: Manny Harris remains one of the most prolific scorers in the Big Ten, but Harris hasn't looked the same since returning from a one-game suspension against Purdue. He's shooting just 34.9 percent from the field (15-of-43) and has more turnovers (10) than assists (six) in Michigan's last two games. Harris has been a slow starter this year, often playing second fiddle to DeShawn Sims in the first half. Michigan would be better served having its best player attack the rim early to set a tone for games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's almost like the old-time days in the mid-majors, you got to really play and go with a big string at the end of the year or you got to peak at tournament time and win the tournament. Those are our two options right now." -- Michigan coach John Beilein on his team's fading NCAA tournament hopes.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: It's been a season of missed opportunity for Michigan. The Wolverines began the year ranked in the top 15, then lost every important game in November and December. In Big Ten play, they blew double-digit leads against Northwestern and Wisconsin, and lost by 1 in the final seconds against Michigan State. With two of the Big Ten's best players, Michigan can hold its own with anyone But the Wolverines don't have the depth or chemistry to win on a consistent basis.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- G Manny Harris, G Laval Lucas-Perry, G Zack Novak, G Stu Douglas, F DeShawn Sims. Key Subs -- F Anthony Wright, G Darius Morris, C Zack Gibson.
Purdue 69, Michigan 59
Michigan State 57, Michigan 56
Michigan 60, Iowa 46
Northwestern 67, Michigan 52
vs. Wisconsin, Saturday, Feb 6
at Minnesota, Thursday, Feb. 11
at Iowa, Tuesday, Feb. 16
vs. Penn State, Saturday, Feb. 20
--Freshman PG Darrius Morris matched his career high with 11 points against Northwestern. His only other double-digit game this season came in the November opener against Northern Michigan, when he was starting and playing 25 minutes a game. Since heading to the bench in mid-December, Morris hasn't been much of an offensive threat. He had 11 total points in Michigan's five previous games.
--F DeShawn Sims, who averaged 20.8 points in a four-game stretch to close January, was held to four points on 2-of-9 shooting against Northwestern. Sims matched a season-low for points and did not make or attempt a free throw for the first time in Big Ten play this year.
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