Difficult To Foresee
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Early February is typically the time where I do one of those "so here's what needs to happen" posts. Last year it was centered around that brutal stretch in the middle of our schedule where 8 of the 9 games were Quad 1 including that super-brutal stretch where we went at Iowa, home for Maryland and Michigan State, and then trips to Rutgers and Penn State (and that was #9 Penn State at the time). I said that if we could somehow go 3-5 in that stretch we could stay in contention for a Big Ten title. We actually went 4-4. But the loss at Ohio State kept us one game short of sharing the title.
I'm wanting to do that again for this season - maybe the old "only lose two more and I think we're a 3-seed minimum" but there's just so much we don't know. How much don't we know? Let me count the ways.
1. We don't know what games will be made up.
This is the big one. As of right now, we have two games that were "postponed" - road trips to Nebraska and Michigan State. There are all kinds of stories out there that the Michigan game next Thursday is off, although Brad Underwood said today in the press conference that nothing has been decided. They're apparently waiting to see what happens after Michigan's government-imposed two week campus lockdown ends Sunday.
But if that game isn't played, then we're starting to approach a scenario where it's difficult to get all three makeup games in. Starting with the next game after Michigan (Northwestern on February 16th), here's how those weeks go:
Northwestern game - off day - off day - off day - at Minnesota
off day - off day - off day - Nebraska - off day - off day - at Wisconsin
off day - off day - off day - off day - off day - off day - at Ohio State
Obviously you could get a makup game - maybe two if you really squeeze - that last week. But I have no idea where you'd make up the third game. You'd have to do things like move the game at Minnesota to Sunday or Monday so you could squeeze in a game after Northwestern. But that's assuming you could find a similar hole in Nebraska, MSU, or Michigan's schedule.
The point: we're getting close to being like Penn State or Michigan and saying "yeah, we're just not going to get all of our games in".
2. We don't know if all of the remaining games will be played.
First, let's put the games I mentioned above on a list and then talk about it like this is a regular season and every game will be played. The old "we should go X-X over this stretch".
The home games should be mortal locks, so I think the goal here is pretty easy: go 2-1 in those three road games. Probably aren't going to win all three, but going 2-1 in those road games would mean we're 4-1 in the final five games. That would mean, of the games scheduled, we'd be 13-4 (if we beat Wisconsin tomorrow) or 12-5 (if we... I won't even mention it).
But then where would we go from there? Make up two of the other games but not Nebraska (a free win?). Make sure that Illinois-Michigan gets played because it's the most likely to have conference title implications? Try to cram in all three?
And then what happens if one of these five other games gets canceled? I'm trying to do my "really need to go 4-1 there" thing but we might not play two of those games. And if those games are off, maybe, I don't know, Nebraska is back on.
You now understand why the title of this post is the uber-clunky "difficult to foresee".
3. We don't know if there will be a Big Ten Tournament.
Someone pointed me to the SportsCenter discussion on whether teams would opt out of conference tournaments because of Covid concerns. I won't use Illinois as the example here, but picture if you're Iowa and you head to the BTT and while there, Luka Garza gets Covid from Paul Mulcahey in a quarterfinal game. Now Luka is out for weeks and your Tournament is shot. Why would Iowa risk that to try to win a conference Tournament?
So it's like the players who are already high draft picks skipping bowl games. You don't need to prove anything more, your spot is secure, so why risk anything? If you don't need the auto-bid, don't play.
Will be interesting to see how that plays out. As some have suggested in the comments of other posts, maybe there's simply not a Big Ten Tournament and that week is used to sort out all the postponed games. Maybe the 7-8 Big Ten teams that have it locked up skip the BTT and then Indiana and Northwestern play a round robin for the title.
The point, again - it's useless to try to guess what's happening. Which is why I'm writing this... what I think will happen..... post.
4. Let's Talk About Michigan
Here's my Friday night news dump. I wasn't going to do this but I got to the end and I can't help myself.
Reports came out (from the Michigan Rivals site) that Michigan-Illinois was off for Thursday the 11th. But then nothing was announced. Next, Matt Norlander reported that assistant coach Phil Martelli informed him that Illinois-Michigan was off. But he followed that up by saying this:
Martelli said Michigan will be out of shelter-in-place protocol on Sunday night at midnight (technically meaning Monday at midnight) and it will need to work its way back into basketball conditioning next week.— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) February 4, 2021
Combine that with Underwood saying that the Big Ten hasn't told them anything yet and, uh, OK, I'll say it.
All of this stuff that's being leaked to the media is Michigan trying to convince the Big Ten that they shouldn't play on Thursday after a two-week layoff ends Sunday night, right? Especially in a game between the first place team and the second place team. These are coordinated "go tell your source with Rivals" and "hey Martelli get on the phone with Norlander and get this out there", right?
I mean, I wouldn't hate it if the roles were reversed. If we were in first and Michigan was in second, and we had two full weeks no practice, I'd kind of want us to leak "this will endanger our athletes" stuff to the media to lean on the conference. I'd want to push the game back, and that kind of public pressure might be a good way to do it.
So I don't really see it as Michigan "ducking" the game. They just know they'll be super rusty (and probably not well-conditioned) and that three days of practice isn't enough to get back into game shape. So they'd much rather push the game back a few weeks. Might mean the difference between winning the conference and not winning the conference.
One last thing. And it's Friday at 5:59 pm so I can absolutely bury this here:
Michigan was shut down for two weeks because of concerns about the B117 variant of Covid on campus. This was a decision made by the state health department, not the University.
The first case of B117 was detected in Champaign County this week. So I don't want to ask but I have to ask: might the State of Illinois health department do the same to us?
Please, everyone, stay inside a plastic bubble all day every day. We have a national championship to win.