Since Juwan Howard took over as the head coach of the University of Michigan men’s basketball program, the former Fab Fiver’s teams have developed a habit of (mostly) underachieving during the regular season before showing just enough in the Big Ten tournament to sneak into the NCAA Tournament and advance to the Sweet 16.
Bet Michigan to win the Big Ten!
But this may be the year the Wolverines kick that habit. By virtue of consecutive overtime road losses to Illinois and Indiana, respectively, Michigan (17-14 overall, 11-9 in the Big Ten) is listed as one of the first five teams out in Joe Lunardi’s “bracketology,” meaning it must make a particularly strong showing in this year’s Big Ten tournament to wind up inside the bubble.
“Michigan would likely be on the right side of the bubble if [the Illinois and Indiana games] were both wins, but still far from a lock,” said PointsBet Trading Risk Analyst Jack Boyle. “Their NET ranking would likely be around 10 spots higher, they’d be a more respectable 10-11 vs Quad 1 and 2 opponents, and have two more quality Q1 wins — both on the road. Penn State has been in a similar situation and won both of its last two games in very close circumstances, and now finds themselves with a presumed slight edge over Michigan in the eyes of many bracketologists.”
To give you a sense of the parity in the Big Ten this season, had Michigan defeated Indiana in Sunday’s regular-season finale, it would have earned the tournament’s second seed and a free pass into the conference quarterfinals, which will be played on Friday at Chicago’s United Center. But because the Wolverines succumbed late to the Hoosiers, they enter the tournament as the conference’s eighth seed, which means a date with ninth-seeded Rutgers on Thursday.
An auto-bid would be best
The Wolverines beat the Scarlet Knights in New Jersey by a score of 58-45 a couple of weeks back without their second-best player, swingman Jett Howard (son of Juwan). They can expect to enter Thursday’s contest as a favorite, but that won’t be the case should they advance. They would be seeking in the conference quarterfinals to avenge a 75-70 late January loss to top-seeded Purdue, the +150 favorite at BetRivers to win the Big Ten tournament.
And if they want to punch their ticket to the Big Dance, they’ll probably need to upset the Boilermakers.
“A win against a fellow bubble team in Rutgers might not be enough,” said Chris McNamara, Kambi’s London-based head of NCAA trading. “So in order to ensure a trip to the NCAA Tournament, Michigan will have to beat Purdue.”
But Boyle thinks even that may not be enough.
“They’ll likely need the auto-bid via conference championship to feel certain,” said Boyle. “Getting to the conference championship and winning all three games in convincing fashion to get there will boost their predictive metrics, which are already in decent shape (38 currently at KenPom), and that would give them three more Q1 wins. However, this would still leave them very much on the bubble. A lot also has to go right in terms of other bubble teams struggling in conference tournaments.”
In assessing Michigan’s virtually peerless recent ability to advance to the Sweet 16 — Gonzaga is the only other program to make the regional semifinals in each of the past five NCAA tournaments — McNamara heaped praise upon the Wolverines’ coach, saying, “It speaks volumes to Juwan Howard’s ability to get the team peaking at the right time and rising to the occasion when the stakes are at their highest.”
The odds, however, are stacked against Howard and his charges. BetRivers, which is among the mobile sportsbooks powered by Kambi, lists Michigan as an 18/1 seventh choice (along with Illinois) to win the Big Ten tournament, while PointsBet has the Wolverines as a 20/1 eighth choice.
Spartans seen as certain Dancers
Despite finishing just a half-game ahead of Michigan in the Big Ten standings and splitting the regular-season series with their state rival, the Michigan State Spartans (19-11 overall, 11-8 Big Ten) are projected as a No. 6 NCAA seed by Lunardi, which indicates that they could lose against either Iowa, Wisconsin, or Ohio State on Friday and still be dancing afterward.
“They are a lock to be in it,” said McNamara of Tom Izzo’s squad. “The Wolverines can consider themselves unfortunate to be on the bubble given the parity within the conference and their narrow overtime losses. However, with very little to separate the teams within conference, out-of-conference games can be used as a better guide to a team’s relativistic merits. The Spartans had a much tougher out-of-conference schedule and performed better than the Wolverines whilst having a common opponent in Kentucky. MSU got the win, whereas Michigan suffered another narrow loss.”
Digging a bit further into the analytical weeds, Boyle said, “The clear difference in each team’s resume is from a NET rankings perspective. Michigan is 54, while MSU is 31. Michigan is 8-13 versus the top two quadrants, while MSU is 12-10. Michigan is 3-11 versus Quad 1 opponents — unable to get it done against good teams off a large sample. MSU is 6-9 versus Q1 opponents, for reference. In terms of bad losses, Michigan has a Q4 loss vs. Central Michigan at home, which is a significant blemish, while MSU has only one Q3 loss, to Notre Dame.”
If both the Wolverines and Spartans (7/1 to win the Big Ten tourney at BetRivers) win their quarterfinal matchups, they’ll face each other in the Big Ten semis. And should they both advance to the Dance, the Spartans, currently with 25/1 odds to make the Final Four at BetRivers, will likely have the better chance to make it to the national semifinals in Houston.
“If both make it, I anticipate MSU still having shorter odds due to the better seeding, but it remains to be seen how the brackets will shake out,” said McNamara. “Michigan (80/1 at BetRivers to make the Final Four) has the experience and ability to certainly put a run together, so whilst their odds will be greater than MSU, they may actually provide the better value.”
Depth to be rewarded?
PointsBet has a market where bettors can put their money behind the conference they think the eventual NCAA Tournament champ will hail from. There, the Big Ten is the fifth choice (+650) behind the Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, and American Athletic Conference.
Kambi takes a slightly rosier view of the Big Ten, however.
“It’s a deep conference without really having a super-elite team,” said McNamara. “Currently, we have the Big Ten ranked third in terms of overall strength. We expect them to be the most represented conference at the Big Dance, with nine to 10 teams forecasted to make the NCAA tourney.”
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