All season long there was Gonzaga and Baylor – and everyone else. The Zags and Bears were clearly the top two teams in the country, the unaffordable favorites of the national champions, and no one else was even around. Instead of debating # 1, # 3 has been discussed – as in, Who is the Best of Others? It’s a place that has largely moved from team to team over the past few months.
While Gonzaga and Baylor are still a notch above the field because neither team lost a game, Michigan makes a strong case for being much closer to the Gonzaga / Baylor tier than the “Everyone Else”.
This is an argument reinforced by the fact that teams numbered 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9 have suffered losses over the past five days. Number 4 is, of course, the state of Ohio, where Michigan came to Columbus on Sunday, racking up 92 points and leaving with a win.
The Wolverines had one more on Thursday.
They overcame a slow first half against Iowa to get the No. 9 Hawkeyes out of the gym in the second half and retire for a dominant 79-57 win. Center Michigan Hunter Dickinson more than asserted himself against Iowas Luka Garza, forcing the Wooden Award favorite to a 6v19 win off the field while scoring 14 of his own at the other end. Franz Wagner, the Wolverines’ best NBA draft, had 21 points and was consistent throughout the game, while Isaiah Livers scored four 3-point points and had 16 points.
Michigan’s defense in the Big Ten game was his calling card, and Thursday was no different. At the start of the week, according to ESPN Stats & Information Research, the lowest number of points Iowa scored in any half for the entire season was 31. The Hawkeyes didn’t score that number in either half against Michigan. And it wasn’t just Garza who fought. Iowa shot 6:19 from 3 point distance and made just two shots behind the bow in the second half.
At the start of the season, Michigan was recognized as one of the best teams in the nation after a 23-point win over Wisconsin that was nowhere near as close. Four days later, the Wolverines lost in Minnesota at 18. They followed with two Big Ten wins, but then we didn’t see them play for 23 days because of a government hiatus. While there was evidence that Michigan was the third best team in the country, it was difficult to really pick the Wolverines as we didn’t know what they would look like after the break.
You answered this question in an impressive way. They won their first second leg in Wisconsin, beating Rutgers and beating Ohio State on Sunday. Then came Thursday’s test against an Iowa team that has the best offensive in the nation and an improving defense. And the game hasn’t been in doubt for the last 16 minutes.
Gonzaga and Baylor will continue to go into the NCAA tournament as the two favorites unless one or both of them lose a game, but the gap between Michigan and everyone else is growing. It’s a claim that is supported by the metrics. The Wolverines are number 3 on KenPom, the Sagarin ratings are number 3 and the record strength of ESPN is number 3. They are 7-1 against opponents in Quadrant 1 and 11-1 against opponents in Quadrant 1 and 2. Due to the adjusted KenPom’s efficiency margin occupied Gonzaga and Baylor in both rows since Baylor’s first game of the season, but Michigan’s win on Thursday reduced Baylor’s lead to just 0.48. (Gonzaga has steadily withdrawn from the pack in the West Coast Conference game.)
Michigan is elite on both ends of the floor. The Wolverines are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. You shoot better than 39% behind the arch, but you can also throw the ball to Dickinson on the block and get a basket. You have five players who have made at least 20 3-pointers with a clip of 36.7% or better this season. Wagner and Livers are versatile goal scorers on the wing. Mike Smith, the graduate transfer from Colombia who rose from an average of 22.8 points on 19.3 strokes last season to an average of 8.6 points on 6.4 strokes this season, has become a seasoned playmaker who effectively distributed, taking care of the ball and making open 3s. Wake Forest Transfer Chaundee Brown adds pop from the bench.
Defensively, head coach Juwan Howard has several high-ranking individual defenders. Wagner has improved dramatically on this end of the floor; Dickinson just choked Garza and demonstrated that he can be dominant on the glass; and Eli Brooks is one of the Big Ten’s top defenders. The Wolverines are excellent at taking shots inside the bow and keeping opponents away from the paint.
Howard is the favorite for the national coach of the year. He lost two older starters from last season in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, replaced them with Smith and Dickinson, and has shopped that team on both ends of the floor.
And after Thursday, he also has a team that has split into the upper crust of the college basketball landscape.