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Niyo: Uncertainty clouds outlook for Michigan, Michigan State in muddled Big Ten

This is the time of year when questions turn to quadrants in college hoops.

And the quandary Michigan’s basketball team finds itself in right now is quite simple, really: The Wolverines don’t have much to show for the work they’ve done thus far, at least in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

Meanwhile, for Michigan State, there’s more quality in the accomplishments to date, but still plenty of uncertainty with six weeks left to play in the regular season, including concerns about injuries and doubts about depth.

But at least this year in a jumbled Big Ten race, they both know they’ve got company. Behind a clear front-runner in Purdue, which on Monday claimed the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP Top 25 rankings, there are 11 teams separated by a total of two games in the league standings. The KenPom ratings have more than half the league — eight teams in all — projected to finish 10-10 in conference play.  And as Indiana’s Mike Woodson put it after Sunday’s win over the Spartans in Bloomington, "The Big Ten championship is still out there. Somebody's got to win it."

But if not Purdue, then who? And what does it say about the overall strength of the Big Ten this year that the Boilermakers are the only team in the conference currently ranked in the top 25? According to SportsRadar, that hasn’t happened since the 2003-04 season, when the league managed just three NCAA bids and only the Big Ten champ (Illinois) advanced past the Sweet 16.

We probably won’t know the full answer to either of those questions until March, when this year’s seeds get planted and the single-elimination tournaments begin to take care of any lingering doubts.

For now, though, there’s little time for coaches to worry about any of that. And not a lot of patience, either.

No easy road

For example, don’t get Izzo started about a league schedule that has been compressed by TV demands and an odd calendar year. Monday was a rare off-day for his Spartans, after a brutal stretch that included six conference games in 16 days, with three of them on the road.

“I don’t know what happened with this (schedule) but I don’t really care,” Izzo grumbled last week. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

Likewise, don’t bother asking Howard about his team’s struggles to generate easy baskets in transition against a last-place Minnesota team. Especially after watching his team’s second-leading scorer — and his own son, freshman wing Jett Howard — go down in heap with an ankle injury in the first half of Sunday’s 60-56 escape at Crisler Center.

“We’re fine, man: We got a win today,” Howard said, pausing before adding, “And by the way, we’re in second place in the Big Ten, if you’re not paying attention.”

He’s right about that. Michigan (11-8 overall, 5-3 in Big Ten) was tied with Rutgers (13-7, 5-3) for second behind league-leading Purdue (19-1, 8-1) after this weekend’s games. But looks can be deceiving, and it doesn’t take a very close inspection of the Wolverines’ resume to see there’s something missing.

They don’t have any Quad 1 wins thus far, losing all six of the games that would’ve qualified through the first 20 they’ve played this season. (Quad 1 wins are defined as those over a top-30 team at home, a top-50 team at a neutral site or a top-75 team on the road, based on the NCAA’s NET rankings.) And because they don’t, the Wolverines find themselves on the outside looking in at the early tournament bracket projections right now.

In fact, while Michigan is near the top of the league standings, Howard’s team sits near the bottom in the NET rankings at No. 77 overall nationally, ahead of only Nebraska and Minnesota among Big Ten teams. Michigan also is one of only three Big Ten teams with a damaging Quad 4 loss, courtesy of that home-court flop against Central Michigan in late December. So the Wolverines have their work cut out for them if they’re going to try earn a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament berth and a third straight in Howard's tenure.

The good news is they’ll have plenty of chances to get the job done, since nine of their final 12 games in the regular season would qualify as Quad 1 wins at the moment. That includes the next four on the schedule, beginning with Thursday’s game against Purdue in Ann Arbor. Yet that’s also the bad news for a team that has just one road win all season (at Minnesota on Dec. 8) and has squandered opportunities both at home (Virginia) and away (Iowa) already.

“No one said it was gonna be easy, right?” Howard said. “But there’s a lot of season left. And we’re not gonna be losing the trust and the confidence that we have. We all have a goal as a team, and each game we’re gonna keep grinding.”

Playing shorthanded

The grind gets much tougher if Jett Howard, the team’s most efficient scorer and leading three-point threat, is sidelined for any length of time. The Wolverines already are playing without point guard Jaelin Llewellyn, who went down with a season-ending ACL injury in December. But losing Howard would allow opposing defenses to collapse even more inside on center Hunter Dickinson, who finished with 23 points and nine rebounds against the Gophers despite Michigan shooting just 36.7% from the field, including 2-of-14 from three.  

“I mean, obviously that changes the dynamic,” Dickinson said of losing the team’s freshman star. “Because he’s a really good player. And he’s somebody that we lean on a lot to get buckets when we need ’em.”

They’ll need everyone from here on out. But the story is no different for Michigan State in that regard. Tired legs might’ve been part of the reason the Spartans came up short at Assembly Hall on Sunday, but injury and illness played a role as well.

Senior forward Malik Hall remains out after aggravating a stress reaction in his left foot 10 days ago in a loss at Illinois. And while another key starter, senior guard Tyson Walker, played 33 minutes against the Hoosiers, he was hardly himself after missing two days of practice with a stomach virus and receiving IV fluids over the weekend.  

Izzo already was playing shorthanded this season with just 10 scholarship players after bypassing the transfer portal last spring. But Sunday, it was particularly noticeable with Hall out, and both A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins in early foul trouble. Izzo’s team struggled with a trio of freshmen on the floor together in a difficult road environment.

“We’re just not deep enough to go through those things,” Izzo said.

That said, the Spartans (13-7, 5-4) are in a more comfortable spot than their rivals right now, sitting 41st in the NET rankings with four Quad 1 notches on their belt and facing a remaining schedule that looks a little less daunting. Izzo also has the confidence that comes with a more experienced core, particularly in the backcourt where that sort of thing matters most.

“I love what this team brings to the table,” Izzo said. “I mean, it’s been a very connected team, and that is really important. I think we have a higher ceiling, but when you think of the injuries we’ve been through, the schedule we’ve been through, I think they’ve done a hell of a job.

“I’m not disappointed. I just wish we would’ve stolen a game here or there that we had in our hands. And we didn’t. But there’s still a lot of games left."

Twitter: @JohnNiyo