Hickey: B1G bubble teams making life easy on NCAA Tournament selection committee
CHICAGO — The Big Ten’s bubble teams deserve credit for 1 thing and 1 thing only in this year’s Big Ten Tournament.
They are sure making life easy for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, which will be able to immediately toss their resumes into the shredder.
A day after Wisconsin played 1 of the worst first halves of the entire Big Ten basketball season, Michigan followed with 1 of the worst second halves of the entire Big Ten basketball season.
Now neither will be hearing its name called when the NCAA Tournament field is announced on Selection Sunday.
Michigan’s abysmal performance in its 62-50 loss to Rutgers on Thursday afternoon in the Big Ten Tournament was sudden and stunning. Hunter Dickinson was shooting to give Michigan the lead with just over 14 minutes remaining, but he forced a wayward jumper that bounced harmlessly off the side of the backboard.
That shot ended up being a harbinger of everything that was to come for the Wolverines.
Michigan didn’t make another shot until Dickinson hit a 3-pointer with 59 seconds to go that cut Rutgers’ lead to 13 — a streak of 12 straight missed field goals that spanned 14:02 of game time.
“In the second half, I felt we pressed a little bit too much as far as wanting to make the play individually,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “And that of course allowed Rutgers to capitalize on either some rushed, missed shots or turnovers.
The Wolverines shot 19% (4-of-21) in the second half with 7 turnovers thrown in for good measure.
“Me personally, I probably played my worst brand of basketball on the worst day to play it,” said Michigan guard Kobe Bufkin, who came close to the wrong kind of triple-double with 9 points, 7 rebounds and 7 turnovers. “7 turnovers is unacceptable.”
This, with the season on the line. Which made it every bit as embarrassing as Wisconsin’s 18-point first half against Ohio State the previous night.
But Michigan’s defeat feels more significant than Wisconsin’s, because it symbolizes a changing of the Big Ten guard this March. And that may not be a good thing for the conference.
B1G’s March king is dead
It’s been an underwhelming half-decade for the Big Ten in the NCAA Tournament, but Michigan has proven the exception. The Wolverines have reached the Sweet 16 or beyond in 5 straight tournaments.
Last year Michigan and Purdue were the last B1G teams standing, both bowing out in the regional semifinals. Michigan was the lone Big Ten team in the Elite Eight the previous season. The Wolverines are also the most recent Big Ten team to reach the national championship game in 2018.
Someone else needs to pick up the mantle now, because Michigan won’t be there.
Howard has no illusions about Michigan reaching the NCAA Tournament. He sounded like a coach unsure of whether he is even going to coach a game in the NIT.
When asked about Michigan’s postseason hopes, Howard responded: “We’ll talk about that when we get home.”
That’s a statement from somebody who expects to be spending the rest of March at home.
Quality over quantity?
The Big Ten came into the week with the possibility of sending as many as 11 teams into the 68-team NCAA Tournament field. That won’t be happening now.
Ironically, the Big Ten is doing a service for conferences like the ACC and Pac-12, which are trying to stuff more of their hopefuls into the bubble.
But in the long run, maybe this will serve the Big Ten better than it does those other leagues. Perhaps the principle of quality over quantity will serve the B1G well this postseason.
That might be a borderline Pollyanna outlook, but bear with me. Silver linings are necessary to grasp for when the Big Ten’s most proven March quantity meets its untimely demise after a single conference tournament game.
But it’s also not completely pie-in-the-sky stuff.
Most of the Big Ten teams in this year’s field will be perched somewhere within the 6-10 seed lines. That positioning sets them up to be the underdogs in their second-round matchups. (Of course, that requires reaching the second round. Because in the first round, teams from the B1G will likely be wearing the target on their backs.)
Playing without pressure can be an underrated factor in March success.
Just ask Michigan and Wisconsin, who were clearly feeling it in Chicago.
“Our young men understood the magnitude of this game,” Howard said. “They’ve heard about it so many times on social media — what your fate will look like if you move forward.”
Alas, Michigan did not move forward. And now its fate is sealed.