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Mike Lopresti | | February 23, 2022

For these 5 NCAA men's basketball tournament hopefuls, the sprint to Selection Sunday includes tumultuous schedules

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OXFORD, Ohio — Somewhere out there in the noise, Michigan must find peace and a way to survive a late season that is now on fast-forward. Four Big Ten games are coming soon for the Wolverines in under 200 hours, and they’d better win most of them.

But they’re not alone. Just look at how COVID makeups have helped turn the late season into a frantic sprint, with little time to practice, or rest.

The game here Tuesday night had been won in the last four seconds. Buffalo claimed its seventh consecutive victory and had broken 80 for the sixth game in a row, beating Miami 86-84 on a Jeenathan Williams floater. This seemed a moment to celebrate for a team rushing into contention in the Mid-American Conference but there wasn’t a lot of time for that. The Bulls would be on a bus the next morning for the 5 1/2-hour ride to Northern Illinois.

They’ll play there on Thursday, then go home for a rematch on Saturday. That’ll make six Mid-American Conference games in 12 days, four of them on the road. And the thing is, no team in the league is geographically close to Buffalo. So for the 17-8 Bulls, the wheel keeps going ‘round.

“It is what it is,” coach Jim Whitesell said, almost on his way out of the door. “Kind of like, next game’s up, you go to play. In February, any conference game is hard to win. You better be able to do it on the road.”

Buffalo, fourth place in the MAC but only two games back and a genuine threat in the league tournament, is lucky to have four seniors starting and only two players on the roster under the age of 20. “We have an older group,” Whitesell said. “So they understand what it takes.”

To clinch the Pac-12 season title and probable No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Arizona will have to get through five games in 10 days, including consecutive road stops at Colorado, Utah and USC. The 24-2 Wildcats just edged Oregon 84-81, their first game all season that ended with only a one-possession difference. “I’m trying not to be in close games,” coach Tommy Lloyd said. “That’s the goal, right?”

One oddity: Lloyd’s first Arizona team is doing this from the No. 2 spot in the Associated Press poll. His place of employment the past 22 years as an assistant — Gonzaga — is No. 1. The top of the rankings has Tommy Lloyd’s footprints all over it. “Weird, cool, awesome,” he called it. “I’m proud of those guys . . . they’re family. We’ve just got to take care of business as we’ve got to take care of business, and we’ll see how long it plays out.”

LATEST RANKINGS: AP Top 25 poll | NET rankings | Andy Katz's Power 36

TCU is another busy bunch. The 17-8 Horned Frogs are fighting to stay away from any NCAA tournament bubble trouble, but a loss at Baylor Saturday and victory over West Virginia Monday green flagged a dash that will include seven Big 12 games in 15 days. Starting Wednesday, TCU faces Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas back-to-back — four ranked opponents in eight days. The Horned Frogs will see the Jayhawks twice in 48 hours, first in Fort Worth, then Lawrence. And this all must be done while injuries have thinned their depth.

“We’ve got to find a way to do it. That’s where we’re at,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “Every time I look, they’re talking to a trainer. My trainer talks to them more than I do.”

Wyoming’s date at rival Colorado State begins five games in 11 days for the Cowboys, who seek to stay in the middle of the Mountain West race. Washington State has the same burden and plays back-to-back games with Washington, and then Oregon State. Central Michigan, trying to cling to one of the last spots in the MAC conference tournament, will have to find a way to end a five-game losing streak while playing six league opponents in 14 days.

And then there’s Michigan. Maybe you’ve noticed the Wolverines have been in the news lately.

With their NCAA tournament hopes fragile due to a 14-11 record, they now have to go into full scramble mode starting Wednesday with Rutgers. Next week, they’ll see Illinois, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State in eight days; a mega-dose of brutal Big Ten basketball.

That’s all a subplot to the bigger story in Ann Arbor, of course, because Michigan will not be led through this five-game make-or-break stretch with Juwan Howard in command. He’s suspended after the mess at Madison, and veteran assistant Phil Martelli will come out of the bullpen. We’re not talking an inexperienced temp worker. Martelli coached Saint Joseph’s to seven NCAA tournaments and an Elite Eight.

But still, March is near. The Wolverines are having to regroup after all the tumult, and the schedule leaves no downtime for easing into the situation. Martelli will have to dive right in from the high board.

“Everybody learned a hard lesson,” Martelli said of the blowup at Wisconsin in his press conference Tuesday. “You know what? Time to play basketball.”

And a lot of it.

Martelli can’t try to emulate Howard. He doesn’t have time.

“I tossed and turned on Sunday night, and finally I woke up on Monday morning and it was really very clear to me,” he said. “They didn’t ask me to be Juwan Howard. They asked me to be me. You know what? I’m confident in that.

“I know this. I know this wholeheartedly, without poking my chest out. I can run a practice and I can manage a game. Forward together, that’s what this has to be, and I’m part of it.”

Martelli said Michigan can’t look at this final glob of games, which might well decide the Wolverines’ fate on Selection Sunday, as one big bite. Just take each day at a time, trying to improve in increments.

“Everything that this team wants to accomplish and has stated as a team goal is still there,” he said. “The external noise takes practice to block it out and to do what we set out to do. I go back to that idea. One percent better today.”

If today means Wednesday, the Wolverines play a crucial game. And Sunday . . . and Tuesday . . . and Thursday . . .

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