CHICAGO — Through the first five games of the Big Ten Tournament, no winning team beat its opponent by more than eight points. The conferences lower seeds had provided great entertainment for fans with 13 seed Nebraska making a surprise run to the quarterfinals.
Then, Late Thursday night, Iowa demolished Illinois 83-62 in a result few could have predicted. The Hawkeyes arrived in Chicago cold, having lost four straight and five out of their last six. Coach Fran McCaffery missed two games (vs. Rutgers, at Wisconsin) due to suspension after a verbal outburst directed at officials after a loss to Ohio State.
That blowout victory set up the Hawkeyes for a second meeting with Michigan. The Wolverines have spent the week preparing for the tournament after losing to Michigan State in the regular season finale 75-63. Last time these two teams met in Iowa City, early foul trouble for Michigan allowed Iowa to lead by as many as 14 points in the first half and that deficit was too much for Michigan to overcome as the unranked Hawkeyes upset then No. 5 Michigan 74-59.
Things could go differently at the United Center Friday evening, the Wolverines held a shootaround Friday morning at the venue as a final prep before facing the Hawkeyes. John Beilein cited that going into an unfamiliar environment against a team that already has a game or two under its belt brings its own set of challenges when playing in the BTT.
“When you go in that arena for the first time it’s important for those guys to be comfortable and the coaches are extremely comfortable at that time,” Beilein said on Wednesday. “They’re not on edge; we have to portray a yes face that we are going to do this. I don’t care what tournament game there is, whether it is a 1-8 game or whatever it is, it is gonna be great basketball and whoever plays well in those last ten minutes probably wins the game.”
For Michigan, there are a few pressing questions that must be answered tonight against the Hawkeyes
1. Can Michigan get out to a hot start, and maintain an advantage?
The Wolverines got out to a blistering start against Michigan State, leading by as many as 12 late in the first half. Before that game at Breslin Center, a hot road start usually boded well for Michigan’s chances throughout the season. The same challenge will be waiting for the maize and blue Friday night. Facing an Iowa team that hit 12 three-pointers against Illinois Thursday (a Hawkeye Big Ten Tournament record) Michigan will need to not only get its offense moving fast but keep the offense moving to close out Iowa late. If Jordan Bohannon (2-5 vs. Illinois) and Nicolas Baer (5-6 vs Illinois off the bench) get going early for the Hawkeyes, Michigan has its work cut out for itself.
2. What impact can Jon Teske have?
Teske got tagged for his first foul less than 90 seconds into the game when the teams played on February 1, leading Beilein to bench him. Teske returned to the game midway through the first half and committed another foul, leading him to sit the rest of the first half. It’s unlikely Teske will only play one minute of the first half this time around, and if he can make an impact against Iowa bigs Luka Garza and Tyler Cook on both ends of the floor, Michigan should be able to get the offense clicking.
“I’m really excited for this tournament. Playoff time is always the most exciting of the year,” Teske said Wednesday. “Our preparation has been really strong lately. Everything just becomes more intense. I feel like my game is at its best when I am aggressive. My confidence is growing, I knew as the season goes on my confidence would continue to grow.”
Teske will be looking to emulate the performance he had in his last Big Ten Tournament game when he scored 14 points off the bench as Michigan defeated Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament championship game last season.
3. Will Charles Matthews be available?
Matthews has not played since injuring his ankle February 24 against Michigan State. Matthews absence was probably felt most in the Wolverines loss on Saturday, as both Ignas Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers sat on the bench with two fouls, meaning Michigan’s top three forwards were out of a game against a top ten opponent. Beilein cited many factors that will go into working Matthews back into the lineup if he is available.
“How was he in practice the last couple days? What’s his role coming off the bench? How does he give J.P more rest?” Beilein listed as questions the staff must ask themselves if Matthews is a go in his hometown. “How can we get him on the floor in any way? Because we love what Isiah gives us, Iggy at the same time, maybe there is a solution there, but if you don’t know whether he is going to play or not, it is hard.”
4. Can Michigan rediscover its killer instinct that has allowed the Wolverines to win this tournament two straight years?
Beilein cited that it’s hard to explain how Michigan has been able to bottle what it has done in the last two Big Ten Tournament runs and bring that to the Windy City. The Wolverines showed a lack of poise in the second half as the team folded against the Spartans down the stretch, but they insist they have rediscovered their form over the last week and are eager to prove that against the Hawkeyes Friday night.
“I never listen to the outside talk, and I don’t think many of our teammates do either,” replied Brazdeikis when asked if the Wolverines heard any chatter after the MSU loss. “We believe in ourselves, and what matters is how we feel about ourselves. The outside talk will always be there but at the end of the day if we do what we need to do, we will be fine. I feel like the momentum is still there, there’s just a few little mistakes we made.”
“Fortunately for me, X, Charles and Austin we haven’t lost in the last two years in the Big Ten Tournament,” said Teske. “We want to continue that this year, and it really does help the younger guys a little bit. A different feel, that neutral site feel a little bit, fans of both sides, pretty much like AAU days.”
For Michigan, the Big Ten Tournament has been home to a lot of warm memories over the past two seasons. With a win Friday, the Wolverines can become the first team in the tournament’s 22-year history to win nine games in a row.