Bubble trouble: Michigan, Rutgers wrestle in resume-builder

Thursday’s Big Ten tournament game in Chicago between eighth-seeded Michigan and ninth-seeded Rutgers may not be “win and you’re in.”

But there’s a reasonable chance the game is “lose and you’re out.”

Both programs enter the week squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and while the winner of this quarterfinal game will stay alive and slightly strengthen its resume, many bracket analysts expect that the loser is done for.

Michigan coach Juwan Howard doesn’t want his team thinking about the game’s massive stakes.

“I focus on one game. Message will be Rutgers,” Howard told reporters. “That’s all the focus is going to be: Rutgers.”

The two sides took far different paths to reach their current position. Michigan (17-14) went 6-2 in the month of February to recover from a slow start. Then the Wolverines lost in double overtime at Illinois and in overtime at then-No. 15 Indiana to conclude the regular season.

Second-team All-Big Ten center Hunter Dickinson leads Michigan with 18.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. Third-team selections Jett Howard (14.5 points) and Kobe Bufkin (13.9) have also been crucial to the Wolverines’ success.

Rutgers (18-13) started Big Ten play 8-4 with impressive wins over Purdue and Northwestern on the road and Michigan State on a neutral court. After losing starting forward Mawot Mag (7.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.0 steals per game) for the season with a torn ACL against the Spartans, they finished the regular season 2-6.

“He did a lot of things for us and stuff, but we’ve had time now and we’ve had other guys (get) opportunities,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “But it’s hard when you lose a starter, it’s hard for anybody. We still figured out a way to win some games.”

The Scarlet Knights are known for their defense, led by Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Caleb McConnell (2.6 steals per game, sixth in the country), Cam Spencer (2.2 steals) and Cliff Omoruyi (2.1 blocks).

Omoruyi, named the third-team All-Big Ten center, leads Rutgers with 13.5 points and 9.8 rebounds. The matchup down low could dictate Thursday’s matchup; Dickinson and Omoruyi had double-doubles Feb. 23 when Michigan beat Rutgers 58-45 in Piscataway, N.J.

“We just wanted to make every possession not easy for them,” Juwan Howard said of that game. “Understanding that we were playing on the road at the RAC, one of the best environments in the Big Ten conference, our guys wanted to make them work for every bucket. And we did a really good job of also holding them to one-shot opportunities.”

–Field Level Media