I must admit, I was a bit cautious in projecting Michigan this season. Last year’s team became a force over the second half of the season, and the reason was largely the defense’s sudden improvement. It’s not like the Wolverines lost a tremendous shotblocking presence or yeoman rebounder, but I did see a bit of a regression to the mean for John Beilein.
Prior to the last couple of seasons, the book on Beilein was that he effortlessly could transform any roster into an offensively efficient one rather quickly, but the defenses would be suspect. Even back to his West Virginia days, his best teams were just those which the team was a bit more accurate on its frequent three-point attempts. So unless Michigan was going to start making close to 40 percent of its three-pointers, I was comfortable with the prediction that the defense would regress and the offense would once again be good, but not so good as to render the porous defense an afterthought:
Well, so much for that theory. The Wolverines have so far held conference opponents to 0.99 points per possession this year. If the number holds up for the remainder of the regular season, it will be the first time a Beilein-coached power conference team has broken the 1.00 PPP barrier on defense. Indeed, while Michigan ranks 4th in the conference in defensive efficiency, they’re just 6th in the conference in offensive efficiency. In other words, this is a defense-first team. That defense was on display in Michigan’s win over Ohio State, holding the Buckeyes to their second-lowest efficiency mark of the season. The Wolverines are in the thick of the Big Ten race as we head to the final two weeks of the season, although with three road games remaining on the schedule. That said, the games are at Illinois, Northwestern, and Penn State, which means they’re all very winnable. It’s not often that you see a longtime coach change his on-court philosophy, so I apologize in advance for every Beilein reference in future debates about whether a current coach can get his team to do X better.
A couple of other Big Ten teams took big hits to their at-large hopes this weekend, with Purdue losing to Michigan State and Illinois getting decimated by, of all teams, Nebraska. The Illini are in what can only be described as a “death spiral.” This was the biggest margin of victory by the Huskers over any team this season. Illinois now sits at 5-9 in conference play, with road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin remaining. The team has also lost 8 of its last 9 games. I think it’s about as likely the Illini make the Tournament as they win another game this season. Still, you have to wonder which Illinois is the real one. As bad as they look now, this is still the only team that’s beaten both Ohio State and Michigan State (Edit: Michigan also has beaten both). It certainly hasn’t helped that conference opponents are shooting 39 percent from three-point range, something that’s not really within the control of the defense.
Purdue’s loss certainly wasn’t as unexpected, and with home games remaining against Nebraska and Penn State (and they may make the Dance even if they only win one of those), there doesn’t appear to be anything alarming with Purdue’s on-court play. But off the court, Purdue is having some problems. This team doesn’t go very deep as it is, so losing players puts a real strain on the rest of the Boiler rotation. We’ll see how Purdue responds without Barlow on Wednesday against Nebraska. And hey, you know it’s nearly time for March Madness when Kelsey Barlow is getting kicked off the team.
Meanwhile, Northwestern is continuing its bid to receive a Dance invitation with a home win over Minnesota. Dave Sobolewski has hit for double figures in 5 of his last 6 games, and dropped 22 points on just 10 shots against the Gophers. Perhaps coincidentally, Bill Carmody’s offense was in a funk up until six games ago. The Wildcats have averaged 1.21 points per possession in that span. There’s still work to do, and with the remaining home games coming against Michigan and Ohio State, Northwestern will need Sobolewski to keep it up. The loss also nearly slams shut the at-large hopes for Minnesota, who now sits at 5-9 in conference play, with games remaining against Michigan State, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
The at-large hopes for Illinois, Purdue, Northwestern, and Minnesota will likely be decided this week. Any wagers on who makes the cut?