ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan is one of only 11 undefeated teams left in college basketball, and there’s a great chance it will stay that way through the rest of the nonconference schedule.
The Wolverines have won each of their first nine games, seven of which came in nonconference play. Last week, Michigan took care of then-No. 19 Purdue at home and won by two points at Northwestern.
Recent history of slow starts
John Beilein’s Michigan teams haven’t typically been known for fast starts. Last season, the Wolverines lost to LSU, North Carolina and Ohio State while beating up on cupcakes in the first 10 games.
In 2016-17, Michigan started 14-9 before ripping off 10 wins in 12 games to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth. The year before that, Michigan lost to Xavier, Connecticut and SMU by a combined 54 points.
Even the 2013-14 team, which ultimately came one play away from the Final Four, lost to Iowa State, Charlotte, Duke and Arizona in the first 10 games.
The 2012-13 team was the most recent to go undefeated in nonconference play, winning 13 games to start the season. That streak included two wins against a team ranked in the final AP Poll: No. 11 Kansas State and No. 17 Pittsburgh.
Why this year is so impressive
This season’s nonconference resume will likely end up being even more impressive than in 2012-13 because of the strength of Michigan’s schedule and the margin of victory.
Michigan went to then-No. 8 Villanova and blasted the defending champs by 27 points. It went to Connecticut and won the Hall of Fame Tip-Off by smashing George Washington and Providence by a combined 42 points.
Perhaps the most impressive win came in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, when Michigan crushed then-No. 11 North Carolina by 17 points.
Villanova and North Carolina will almost certainly be high seeds in this year’s NCAA Tournament, while Providence looks to be trending toward a bid as well. Michigan beat those three teams by a combined 63 points.
A 19-point win over then-No. 19 Purdue and a road win against Northwestern obviously weren’t nonconference games, but they added to Michigan’s overall resume in the month of December.
What’s left in nonconference play
Since the Big Ten expanded to 20 conference games, Michigan will only play 11 games outside the Big Ten, as opposed to 13 in years past.
The toughest challenges are certainly in the rearview mirror, as Michigan will play four straight home games against teams with .500 records or worse to polish off the nonconference slate.
South Carolina will provide the toughest test, but the Gamecocks are off to a bit of a rough start. Like Michigan, South Carolina had no trouble dispatching of Norfolk State and George Washington, but the Gamecocks are just 4-4 overall with losses to Stony Brook, Providence, Wofford and Wyoming.
South Carolina is No. 108 in the KenPom rankings, which would make this Michigan’s sixth-toughest challenge of the season.
Western Michigan, Air Force and Binghamton are all outside the KenPom top 200, so it would take a major letdown from Michigan not to improve to 13-0 by the end of the month.
What does this mean?
It’s still early in the college basketball season, and what a team does in March ultimately means a lot more than these games.
But by the end of this four-game stretch, Michigan will have played more than a third of the regular season, which makes up a big part of its resume when March rolls along.
Some people would say NCAA Tournament seeds don’t matter once the games begin, but that’s not necessarily true. Michigan has made three deep tournament runs under Beilein: as a No. 4 seed in 2013, a No. 2 seed in 2014 and a No. 3 seed last year.
Since the Trey Burke era, Michigan is 13-3 in NCAA Tournament games as a top four seed. A 13-0 start and an undefeated nonconference slate would be a big step toward locking up another high seed when March rolls around.
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