So, to those of you who haven't followed basketball this year, Saturday is going to be sort of a big deal. You might ask why? Is it the fact that College Gameday, a Saturday morning ESPN show, will makes its first ever appearance at Crisler Arena? Is it the fact that many consider this the most difficult remaining game on their schedule? Is it the fact that a win would propel Michigan to having a great shot at its first Big Ten championship since 1986? Or is it the fact that Michigan will put its undefeated home record on the line against its arch-rival?
The correct answer would have been all of the above. This is the type of game the Wolverines have probably never seen before, or at least not in decades. It is essentially a combination of all of the things that make college basketball great. All the extra aspects of a rivalry game, media coverage, and fan excitement will be there, but fans also will get to experience a tightly contested game that has real significance for the conference championship.
Considering all of these factors, I think it should be quite evident that this game is pretty important for the season. A win vaults Michigan into great position for a run at the Big Ten title and a great seed in the NCAA Tournament, but a loss could potentially derail the entire year. Not only would the loss remove almost all possibility of winning the title, but the psychological and emotional impact on both the fan-base and team could be pretty devastating. The team's mindset and poise has been great all year, especially at home, but this poise will be vital if Michigan wants to make a tournament run.
So, what does this really mean for Michigan? This is a huge game for Michigan and the program. Competing with conference powerhouses is significant, but winning is even more important if this program wants to stay with them. A few months ago, I posted on the significance of Michigan's third win in a row over Michigan State. Playing close games was not what restored that in-state rivalry. Winning games against them is what did. Ask anybody about how they felt after Michigan beat Ohio in November. It only took one game to bring that rivalry back. To me, this is a win that will cement Michigan's program as back.
The team is and certainly has been good, but it has never been great in a long time. Sure, there's always debate about what's "good" and what's "great", but I think most can see the difference. Michigan has a losing streak to Ohio dating back to January 3, 2010. That doesn't seem like that long, but the two teams played five teams since then. However, that's not the streak that's the most important here. I mentioned that Michigan has not won a Big Ten title since 1986. Since then six different schools have won titles.
Certainly Michigan has had success in basketball since 1986, but that mainly consisted of the Fab 5 era and tournament appearances here and there. With the Fab 5 scandal, most of that success has literally been erased. If John Beilein and this team want to validate the program, it will be through Big Ten championships and playing consistent basketball. Tom Izzo and Michigan State haven't won a NCAA Title since 2000, but I don't think anybody thinks that's a bad program. It's because they've made the tournament every year since then, won 3 Big Ten titles, and made at least the Sweet 16 five times.
It's consistent play that builds programs. The most effective way to do that is to play well in your conference. Not only does this give the team championships and recruiting dividends, but it's also correlated with better seeding. Right now, Michigan is projected to be a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A win over Ohio would probably assure them a 4 seed, assuming there is no late season collapse. These kinds of differences are vital to building a program. Michigan has made the tournament twice under John Beilein and won a game both times, but has never made a deep run. Having advantageous seeding is crucial to making deep runs on a consistent basis. For instance, last season Michigan came in as an 8 seed and had a good match-up in the first round, but then was scheduled against Duke in the next game. If you're a 4 seed you don't have that game until much later.
Alright, so enough hype building up to this game. We all should know what it means by now. So, who's going to win and why? I would break down these teams again, but I already did this before the previous game here. The only significant changes from the previous game is the location and momentum. Michigan has a lot of momentum coming into this game and the crowd should be roaring (it's a Maizeout) while Ohio is coming off a tough home loss to Michigan State. If Ohio loses this game their shot at a Big Ten title likely evaporate. Essentially, if either team wins they are in great position to win the title, but if they lose they probably have no realistic shot.
I think Ohio will play better than their last game against Michigan State, but Michigan has been unbeatable at home and with guys like Hardaway and Smotcryz finally making an impact again, I think they're going to be too much for the Buckeyes. Surely it will be a close game, but I think the Wolverines are primed to steal this game. Not sure if they can win the Big Ten title just yet, but I think they can win what has become the biggest game of the season.
My Magic Pick Is...
Photo Credit: UMHoops