I wrote that a silver lining to Michigan’s loss to Rutgers in its Big Ten tournament opener last Thursday was that with the loss, the Wolverines’ season had mercifully come to an end. That, “after so many winnable games were lost, after so many “must wins” came and went, perhaps it’s for the best this season was finally put out of its misery.” Well, the good people at ESPN had other ideas and Michigan’s season will continue as a #3 seed in the NIT.
Michigan will host the Toledo Rockets in the first round of the NIT, and the regular season champions of the MAC should not be dismissed. The second highest scoring team in the nation (after Gonzaga), Toledo was one of the hottest teams in the country down the stretch. The Rockets captured their fifth regular season MAC championship in six seasons and won 17 consecutive games before falling to Kent State in the MAC tournament championship game. And not for nothing, Toledo defeated Central Michigan by 25 and 36 points in the schools’ two meetings. That would be the same Central Michigan team that beat Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The Rockets are led by junior guard RayJ Dennis. The MAC player of the year averages 19.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. Dennis is complemented by a pair of 6’7” senior forwards, JT Shumate (1st team all-conference) and Seth Milner Jr. (2nd team all-conference), who each chip in 16.0 points per game. All three are capable three-point shooters, as is junior guard Dante Maddox, who connects on threes at greater than a 45% clip.
If there’s a concern for Toledo, it’s that it runs a three-guard offense, and beyond 6’10” forward/center AJ Edu, the Rockets don’t have a lot of size, so containing Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson will be a challenge. But having an offense that averages more than 85 points per game, Toledo and it’s “small ball” line-up will also stress Michigan’s defense.
The big question for Michigan, however, isn’t how well it will match-up with Toledo defensively, but whether the Wolverines really want to play in the NIT. Historically, teams that had higher aspirations than playing in the NIT have either viewed the invitation as a platform to show they belonged in the Big Dance - or showed up in body only, not mind.
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard likes to say that Michigan is “for competitors only”. That being the case, you’d expect the Wolverines to show up and show out. You’d also think that a team that has had a frustrating and ultimately disappointing season would like to go out on high note. Would like to build a little good will and momentum for next season.
So where does Michigan fall on this spectrum? We’ll find out soon enough.