The 2023 NCAA Tournament is approaching, and bracketology season is in full swing. Our “Making the Case” series examines the Michigan Wolverines.
Michigan entered this season with relatively high expectations. The Wolverines were picked to finish third in the Big Ten preseason media poll, but by the end of January, that looked unlikely to happen.
At that time, Michigan was 11-10 (5-5 B1G) and primarily out of the NCAA Tournament conversation. In a similar vein to last season, the Wolverines have sharpened their claws down the stretch. Invigorated by head coach Juwan Howard, the team reeled off a superb February.
The month of love was kind to Michigan. The Wolverines rattled off six wins in eight February games, including four over teams in the Bracket Matrix projected field. They did most of their damage at home but also added impressive road wins at Northwestern and Rutgers. The hot stretch has included a 28-spot jump in the NET and similar leaps in other teamsheet metrics:
Michigan is rising like a phoenix from its midseason ashes, and the Wolverines appear to be taking flight at the perfect time.
Could all this recent work be for naught (and NIT)? Absolutely. Nevertheless, Michigan has pushed itself into the at-large conversation with two weeks remaining. Let’s dive deeper into their case to the committee and what they still need to do.
Recent historical comparisons for Michigan
Michigan has played great over the last month. Per Bart Torvik, the Wolverines rank 15th in the country in adjusted efficiency during February. However, they were quite far behind the eight ball when the month started and, thus, have not yet done enough to jump into the projected field.
That is where this breakdown must begin: Michigan is not in the field as of right now. The Wolverines still have work to do.
Recent historical comparisons tell us as much. Looking at the closest resumes in the NET era to the one Michigan has right now, the four most similar teams all eventually missed the field:
It is worth noting that Michigan has better metrics than its historical comps. The computer numbers are more on their side than the usual team with a 3-10 record in Quad 1 and a Quad 4 loss on its ledger.
The metrics bode well, to be sure, but the fact remains: Michigan has chores to do before it can go dancing.
Diving deeper into the metrics
Just how much work remains? With Michigan improving each of its six teamsheet metrics by at least 25 spots over the last month, the team has already pushed itself into the conversation. The Wolverines have higher quality metrics than many bubble teams, thanks mainly to a No. 31 ranking in Sagarin.
As for projecting which metrics matter most, quick reminder: resume metrics correlate more strongly to the selection, while quality metrics are more closely tied with seeding.
With that in mind, only two teams in the NET era (2022 Rutgers and 2021 Utah State) have earned at-large bids with resume metrics rating outside the top 52. Conversely, only one team (2022 VCU) has missed the tournament with top-40 resume metrics.
Michigan’s resume metrics (KPI and SOR) average 50.5 right now. Those are bubble-level metrics as long as a team can still improve its resume — which is exactly where Michigan finds itself. With two tremendous opportunities looming to close the regular season at Illinois and Indiana, the opportunities exist to climb into that aforementioned top 40.
It is worth noting that Michigan’s solid rankings across every teamsheet metric also carry weight. Going into the past three Selection Sundays, 145 teams entered with average rankings above 50 in both resume and quality metrics — and 139 of them (96 percent) earned at-large bids.
Michigan is extremely close to joining that group, ranking 50.5 in resume and 42.0 in quality. But will it be enough to keep them out of the dreaded four percent?
Investigating the quadrant records
Michigan’s surface-level quadrant records are a challenge to decipher.
The Wolverines have had 13 opportunities to add Quad 1 victories, but they are just 3-10 in those games. Michigan’s .231 win percentage in Quad 1 games is one of the worst rates on the bubble. Ample opportunity can cut both ways; in the Wolverines’ case, all the extra chances have shown that they are unable to beat such quality teams with any consistency.
Additionally, they dropped a Quad 4 game to Central Michigan (while mostly healthy). That is not just barely qualifying as a Quad 4 loss, either. Fellow bubble teams like Pittsburgh and USC have Quad 4 losses, but theirs came against Florida State (NET 216) and FGCU (NET 172). On the other hand, Central Michigan currently sits at No. 318 — in other words, the lowest-ranked team the Wolverines have played all season.
Michigan is 3-5 in road games, and its mediocre nonconference strength of schedule (No. 136) does not bolster its case. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the selection committee has not put much stock in conference records or standings; Michigan being second place in the nation’s second-best league may not carry as much weight as it perhaps should.
Looking on the Bright side
Enough negativity! It’s not all doom and gloom; Michigan’s resume does feature a few key components that could help on Selection Sunday.
First and foremost, the Wolverines boast an impressive quantity of wins over the field. They already have seven wins over teams projected to land at-large bids: Maryland, Rutgers, Northwestern (2x), Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. The head-to-head advantage over bubble teams like Rutgers and Pittsburgh doesn’t hurt at all, either.
Only 10 teams in the country have more wins over the projected field than Michigan; all 10 are looking at earning single-digit seeds, including eight of the teams on the top four seed lines. (Holding the head-to-head advantage over bubble teams like Rutgers and Pittsburgh doesn’t hurt at all, either.)
Furthermore, Michigan has opportunities upcoming to add even more wins over the field. As noted, the Wolverines finish at Illinois and Indiana — both are Quad 1 games. Neither is an easy win, to be sure, but late-season chances to nab signature road victories? That can go a long way toward earning a bid.
During the Bracket Preview, the selection committee showed preferential treatment to teams who were playing their best basketball of late and those with high-quality road wins. Michigan has won six of eight heading into its final two games, both high-quality road chances. If the Wolverines finish strong, they will notch two key traits that the committee appears to prioritize.
The overall outlook for Michigan
Once thought to be entirely out of the NCAA Tournament conversation, the Wolverines have clawed their way back over the past few weeks. Michigan has won six of its last eight games, including three straight over projected NCAA Tournament teams. Suddenly, the team finds itself among the first few on the outside looking in. With two Quad 1 opportunities looming — not to mention the upcoming Big Ten Tournament — opportunities abound for this group to launch into the field.
A slow start persists in holding back Michigan’s teamsheet, but it has been the second-best team in the Big Ten throughout conference play. That is true of both league standings and where they stand in metrics:
Michigan’s closing schedule presents the significant challenges of playing in Assembly Hall (Indiana) and the building formerly known as Assembly Hall (Illinois). Winning one of those games would keep them in the mix for a bid and put them right on the cutline. Winning both might just put them into the projected field before the Big Ten Tournament starts.
As I said earlier: The Wolverines still have work to do. Unlike some other teams on the bubble, though, the opportunities exist for Michigan to fix its flaws and play its way into the field.