The Wolverine

February 2020

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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FEBRUARY 2020 THE WOLVERINE 73 M ichigan's 7-0 start and Battle 4 Atlantis championship seem like eons ago. Since then, the Wolverines have struggled to add numbers to the win col- umn. As of Jan. 20, they were 4-6 in their last 10 games and had opened the Big Ten slate with a measly 2-4 record. They have dropped from being ranked fourth nation- ally in the Associated Press poll to being 11th in their own conference. However, the situation is not as dire as it may seem on the surface. Despite piling up losses in the last two months, Michigan remains No. 20 in the KenPom.com ratings. This team could still contend for the program's fourth straight Sweet 16, especially if junior wing Isaiah Livers returns soon. So how can Michigan still be held in such high regard despite so many losses? Due to the quality of the top 12 teams in the conference, life on the road in the Big Ten has never been tougher. All four of Michigan's Big Ten losses were on the road. The Wolver- ines lost at Illinois (No. 35 according to KenPom.com) by nine Dec. 14, at Michigan State (No. 7) by 18 Jan. 5, at Minnesota (No. 36) by eight Jan. 12 and at Iowa (No. 15) by seven Jan. 17. All four of those opponents were in the KenPom.com top 40 as of Jan. 20, and that is the theme to keep in mind. Each of the top 12 teams in the Big Ten are ranked among the top 40 teams in the country. That's an astounding 85.7 percent of the con- ference. The league with the second- highest percentage of teams in the KenPom.com top 40 is the Big East with 50.0 percent (five of 10 teams). So every program in the Big Ten other than Northwestern (No. 106) and Nebraska (No. 135) is NCAA Tournament caliber, and playing against teams of that quality on the road — where one has to deviate from its usual routines to play in front of hostile fans — is tough. Not only has it been tough on Michigan, it has been tough on ev- ery team in the Big Ten. Road teams have been only 7-42 (.143 winning percentage) in Big Ten play. That's the worst among all conferences. And to highlight even further just how difficult it has been, four of those seven wins were against Northwestern and Nebraska. There- fore, Big Ten teams are just 3-38 (.073 winning percentage) on the road against the other conference teams that are ranked in the KenPom.com top 40. The programs to earn those three wins are Wisconsin (at Ohio State Jan. 3 and at Penn State Jan. 11) and Illinois (at Wisconsin Jan. 8). Every other team, like Michigan, is 0-fer on the Big Ten road. Michigan being 2-4 in the Big Ten is more a product of its schedule than of its talent. Four of the Wol- verines' first six conference contests were on the road, and none were against Northwestern or Nebraska. On the other hand, Michigan State is 6-1 in the Big Ten but has had the luxury of playing five home games and an away game at Northwestern. The only non- Northwestern or non-Ne- braska conference away game the Spartans have played? They lost by 29 points at Pur- due. It does not mean, though, that Michigan has not let op- portunities to pick up a road win or two slip through its fingers. The Minnesota and Iowa losses sting in particular because the Wolverines held leads in the final six minutes of both before running out of gas and surrendering them. Those are the defeats that Michigan may regret more than others as it vies for its seeding. However, it seems likely that things should swing in the other direction for Michi- gan in the coming weeks. The Wolverines' next eight games from Jan. 22 to Feb. 16 consist of five home games (versus Penn State, Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State and Indiana), a neutral-site game against Rutgers, and two roadies at, of course, Ne- braska and Northwestern. Though they should not expect to win each of these games, they currently would be the favorite in all of them. This will be a pivotal stretch for the Wolverines. This will be the time for them to get Livers back on the hardwood, regain their confidence in front of their home fans or against less-skilled opponents and string together wins to get back in the Big Ten race and enhance their résumé. If the Wolverines can do that, they'll get another crack at stealing a difficult Big Ten road game or two at the end of the season, and if they can do that, it will feel like winning the Battle 4 Atlantis all over again. Be- cause that is how arduous winning on the Big Ten road has been. ❑ INSIDE THE NUMBERS   DREW HALLETT Life On The Big Ten Road Head coach Juwan Howard's Michigan team opened the Big Ten season with a 0-4 mark on the road in conference play. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL Staff writer Drew Hallett has covered Michigan athletics since 2013. Contact him at drew.c.hallett@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DrewCHallett.

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