By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) There’s a general rule to live by when it comes to Big Ten teams and the NCAA Tournament: Win 20 games with a conference record above .500, and you’re in.
Of course, there are teams that don’t hit those marks yet still get selected by the NCAA Tournament committee, but hit those marks and fail to be chosen? That’s what we call a “snub.”
So as Michigan sits two wins away from ensuring both a 20-win season and a winning conference record, it appears clear the Wolverines are headed for their fifth straight tournament appearance.
I can’t help but notice, though, that this doesn’t look like a tournament team. Am I breaking my hard-and-fast rule? No. Michigan deserves — barring what would need to be one of the worst collapses in Big Ten history — to make the tournament.
The Wolverines just don’t look like a team that will do much when they get there.
Are they better than Wisconsin and Ohio State, two teams that currently sit on the bubble? I guess we’ll find out when the Wolverines play the Badgers and Buckeyes for the first time this season each next week, on Tuesday and Feb. 21, respectively.
Michigan’s only win over a ranked opponent is a 70-67 victory against Maryland at home on Jan. 12. The Wolverines deserve huge amounts of credit for holding Terrapins guard Melo Trimble to only two points in that game.
But Michigan’s other Big Ten wins have come against Illinois, Minnesota (twice), Nebraska, Rutgers and Penn State (twice) — all of which are the conference’s bottom six teams and won’t make the tournament.
Want to be selected into the tournament field? You generally have to beat tournament-bound teams.
Now if you’re a Michigan fan and have read this far, I feel obligated to admit that Caris LeVert, the team’s best player, has missed the past 11 games. In his 14 games this season, LeVert has scored in double-figures all but once. So, yeah, he’s important.
And when he finally returns to action from a lower-leg injury, it will certainly give the Wolverines a timely boost. Michigan plays against No. 18 Purdue, at Ohio State, at No. 2 Maryland, against Northwestern, at Wisconsin and against No. 4 Iowa to close out the season.
It’s a stretch of games that allows Michigan to change its profile entirely, though I don’t believe the team capable, even if fully healthy.
LeVert was cleared to play for Michigan’s win at Minnesota, according to MLive.com, but he chose not to play.
“This is his call,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Tuesday to MLive.com. “This isn’t my call. We’ll see what he feels like after today’s practice — how much he can go.”
Generally, coaches don’t publicly put pressure on their players like that. By making that statement, Beilein has given reason to ask all different questions.
Is he frustrated by LeVert’s unwillingness to play after an injury? Is LeVert focused on his status heading into the summer’s NBA Draft? Has LeVert sought council from Derrick Rose? Or maybe LeVert is just generally sore? Regardless, a distraction like the one seemingly created by LeVert’s status doesn’t give me confidence that this Michigan team will prove anything in its most important stretch of the season.
Even without LeVert, though, this is still a tournament team. At least that’s what the history of tournament selection tells us.
Still, I can’t help but think Michigan’s resume seems entirely superficial.
Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Maryland — After some jockeying, the Terps appear to be the conference’s best team.
2. Michigan State — The Spartains are one of about 15 teams that can win it all.
3. Iowa — Ditto.
4. Indiana –– The Hoosiers had a great win over the Hawkeyes on Thursday.
5. Purdue — A.J. Hammons has the ability to take over a game.
6. Wisconsin — This is a tournament team.
7. Ohio State — Must-wins against Northwestern and Rutgers come next.
8. Michigan — When will Caris LeVert be back?
9. Nebraska — The Huskers could rally to finish .500 in conference play.
10. Northwestern — I expected more from the Wildcats this season.
11. Illinois — What a mess.
12. Penn State — The Nittany Lions are lucky to have a game against Rutgers left.
13. Rutgers — The Scarlet Knights are winless in the league but have played one fewer game than Minnesota.
14. Minnesota — Could the conference end the year with two winless teams?
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.