Michigan is right in the thick of the Big Ten race with half the conference slate remaining, but the meat of the schedule is upon it. A game with Ohio State tonight, followed by contests at Wisconsin and Michigan State, could be key in determining whether the Wolverines take command of their fate or spend the next several weeks playing catch-up.
It's the latest high level, high quality game, head coach John Beilein said following U-M's 81-73 loss at Indiana that dropped Michigan to No. 3 in the national polls, and they spent more time watching video than usual before preparing for the Buckeyes.
OSU handed Michigan its first loss just a few weeks ago, 56-53 in Columbus.
"It's been like this for 13 straight days," Beilein said of the daunting schedule. "It stretches us, really, but we frame it up with our players that this is what a run would be like in March. If you have a great run in the Big Ten Tournament and you're playing until Sunday, you might have a Thursday game [in the NCAA Tournament]. If you win, you might have a Saturday game."
A second loss to the Buckeyes wouldn't devastate U-M's Big Ten title chances - OSU, Indiana and MSU, the other three most serious contenders, all have several tough road games remaining - but would put the Wolverines in a hole.
"It's starting to shape up right now," Beilein said. "There are four teams really close to each other, and I'm sure Wisconsin is right there, as well, as a fifth team. It has a lot to do with who you played and where you played them.
"Many of the high level teams we play first away and don't play them at all or play second at our place, so we'll have to wait and see what happens down the stretch. There are still a lot of away games to be played by some really good teams against very good teams. Even Iowa is just a couple points away from being up there. There are a lot of teams still involved at the halfway point."
Prediction: Michigan 66, Ohio State 56
Beilein expected no repercussions for freshman Glenn Robinson III following an inadvertent blow to Indiana guard Jordan Hulls' face.
"I just heard about it an hour and a half ago," he said Tuesday. "I hadn't seen or heard anything about it. It looks to me like he is pulling his arm away from [Christian] Watford, he's heading up court, and unfortunately Jordi is in the way, and I'm glad Jordi's not hurt. They reviewed it during the game, as well. If there was anything intentional there, we would deal with it. Right now it looks like incidental contact.
"They have all the tape they need [at the Big Ten]; they really do. They have not contacted me. I reached out to our supervisor of officials, and we've discussed it. I'm carrying on and feel really bad about it, but it was accidental contact."
Robinson struggled in his home state, but Beilein expects him to learn from the experience.
"He got six pretty good shots during the night," he said. "We have to find other ways to get him the ball. They really denied in the corner, didn't give a lot of help, forced us to play right down the middle in a two-man game. We've got to find ways to get him more involved; he's got to find ways to get more involved.
"But he went after every offensive rebound; he played really hard. I was really proud of him. When they are shutting you down and boxing you out the way they did - and that was probably a 22- or 23-year-old senior playing an 18-year-old kid for 40 minutes - there was a lot of attention on him. He's got to continue to work as a coaching staff to find other ways to involved him."
Redshirt junior center Jordan Morgan remains sore from an ankle injury. His status is questionable.
"I'm not sure who will start tomorrow night," Beilein said. "Jordan practiced yesterday a little bit, but there was soreness just from those two minutes. I'm very happy we did not play him more the other day."
Practice has been solid since the loss, he added.
"I really like the way our young men have responded in practice, which means they must be doing the right things off the court which will assist us in this," he said.
Freshman Mitch McGary continues to evolve. He played one of his best games in a 10-point, seven-rebound showing at IU.
"We've seen incremental improvement of what his understanding of a role of a big man is at this level," Beilein said. "You have to be in great shape, really understand the game. You're the last line of defense and it's very physical.
"I like steps he's making, and I think everybody sees improvements. He's playing bigger. He's always played with energy, but I think he's sustaining longer.
Beilein on playing at home: "You don't want to put too much into it that if you lose at home, it's doomsday," he said. "You've just got to keep playing to protect it every time. On the road, if you want to win this league this year, you'll probably have to split on the road, at least. Teams that do that are really going to have a great year."