Michigan picked up their most significant victory of the season Saturday night, edging Ohio State by five points in a game that had more to do with the Wolverines’ suffocating half court defense than any of the Buckeyes’ shortcomings on offense. The win pushed the Maize and Blue’s sterling record at Crisler Arena this season to 15-0.
In two key matchups where the Wolverines were at a perceived disadvantage, they came out on top: Trey Burke was better than Aaron Craft, and even more astonishing, Jordan Morgan was better than Jared Sullinger.
Impressive as it was, that victory won’t have any effect on how the Wolverines play Tuesday night when they go on the road to face a Northwestern team in dire need of a résumé-boosting win. Why? Michigan simply isn’t the same team away from home this season.
Let’s take a look at the Wolverines’ conference wins on the road.
The first, which didn’t occur until January 24, was by a two-point margin at Purdue. The Boilermakers were still recovering from being absolutely eviscerated in East Lansing three days earlier–the Spartans cruised to a 25-point victory.
Conference road win number two came two weeks later at Nebraska. Even if the Huskers did have center Jorge Brian Diaz active that Wednesday night–the junior is out indefinitely with chronic foot injuries–the Wolverines would have won with ease.
John Beilein’s squad faces a much greater degree of difficulty Tuesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats have won four of their last six, including an impressive four-point victory at Illinois– that is, before the Illini surrendered all hopes of making something of their season and before Bruce Weber essentially told the world that he was going to be fired.
More importantly, NU needs another big win to make sure that their on the right side of the proverbial bubble cut line on Selection Sunday. The Wolverines, with their gaudy RPI and SOS numbers (12th and 7th in the nation, respectively), would be the icing on the cake for the Wildcats’ tournament résumé–a résumé that could potentially get them to the Big Dance for the first time in program history. Now that’s something to play for.
Not only will the Wolverines be fighting an extremely motivated Wildcats team, but also a possible hangover from Saturday night’s big win. Beating the Buckeyes ended a six-game losing streak against the hated rival. In other words, it was a pretty big deal. With a tournament bid and a high seed now locked in, Michigan could very well treat their trip to Evanston Tuesday night like a pretty small deal.
I’m not questioning the Wolverines’ motivation here, but in the eyes of the players, coach Beilein, and the selection committee, would it really be that big of a deal if Michigan slips up Tuesday night? Probably not.