April 19, 2021

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Michigan Wolverines are legit contenders to win NCAA tournament

4 min read

All season, the narrative around college basketball has been there’s Gonzaga and Baylor — and everyone else. The Zags and Bears were clearly the two best teams in the country, the prohibitive national champion favorites, and nobody else was even close. Instead of debates about No. 1, discussion has been about No. 3 — as in, who’s the best of the rest? It’s a spot that has bounced around from team to team for most of the last few months.

While Gonzaga and Baylor might still be a notch above the field due to the fact that neither team has lost a game, Michigan is making a strong case that it’s far closer to the Gonzaga/Baylor tier than the “everyone else” tier.

It’s an argument made stronger by the fact the teams ranked Nos. 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 have all suffered losses in the last five days. Of course, No. 4 is Ohio State, which saw Michigan come into Columbus on Sunday, put up 92 points and leave with a statement victory.

The Wolverines had another one of those on Thursday.

They overcame a slow first half against Iowa to run the No. 9 Hawkeyes out of the gym in the second half, pulling away for a dominant 79-57 victory. Michigan center Hunter Dickinson more than held his own against Iowa’s Luka Garza, forcing the Wooden Award favorite into a 6-for-19 night from the field while scoring 14 points of his own at the other end. Franz Wagner, the Wolverines’ best NBA draft prospect, had 21 points and was consistent all game, while Isaiah Livers made four 3-pointers and had 16 points.

Michigan’s defense in Big Ten play has been its calling card, and that was no different on Thursday. Entering the week, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, the fewest points Iowa had scored in a half all season was 31. The Hawkeyes didn’t hit that number in either half against Michigan. And it wasn’t just Garza struggling. Iowa shot 6-for-19 from 3-point range, making just two shots from behind the arc in the second half.

Earlier in the season, Michigan started to earn some recognition as one of the nation’s best teams following a 23-point win over Wisconsin that wasn’t nearly that close. Four days later, the Wolverines lost at Minnesota by 18. They followed that up with a pair of Big Ten wins, but then we didn’t see them play for 23 days due to a state-mandated pause. So while there was evidence Michigan was the third-best team in the country, it was hard to really buy into the Wolverines because we didn’t know what they would look like following the break.

They’ve answered that question in impressive fashion. They won at Wisconsin in their first game back, beat Rutgers and then had the win over Ohio State on Sunday. Then came Thursday’s test against an Iowa team that has the nation’s best offense and an improving defense. And the game was not in doubt over the final 16 minutes of play.

Gonzaga and Baylor will still go into the NCAA tournament as the two favorites unless one or both of them loses a game, but the gap between Michigan and everyone else is growing. It’s an assertion backed up by the metrics. The Wolverines are No. 3 at KenPom, No. 3 in the Sagarin ratings and No. 3 at ESPN’s Strength of Record. They’re 7-1 against Quadrant 1 opponents and 11-1 against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents. KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin has had Gonzaga and Baylor ranked 1 and 2 in either order since Baylor’s first game of the season, but Michigan’s win on Thursday cut Baylor’s edge to just 0.48. (Gonzaga has steadily pulled away from the pack in West Coast Conference play.)

Michigan is elite at both ends of the floor. The Wolverines are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, shooting better than 39% from behind the arc but also capable of throwing the ball to Dickinson on the block and getting a basket. They have five players who have made at least 20 3-pointers this season at a clip of 36.7% or better. Wagner and Livers are versatile scorers on the wing. Mike Smith, the graduate transfer from Columbia who went from averaging 22.8 points on 19.3 shots last season to averaging 8.6 points on 6.4 shots this season, has developed into a veteran playmaker who distributes effectively, takes care of the ball and makes open 3s. Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown adds pop off the bench.

Defensively, head coach Juwan Howard has multiple high-level individual defenders. Wagner has improved dramatically at that end of the floor; Dickinson just stifled Garza and has shown he can be dominant on the glass; and Eli Brooks is one of the best defenders in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are outstanding at contesting shots inside the arc and keeping opponents out of the paint.

Howard is the favorite for national coach of the year. He lost two senior starters from last season in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, replaced them with Smith and Dickinson, and has this team buying in at both ends of the floor.

And after Thursday, he also has a team that has separated itself into the upper crust of the college basketball landscape.

2021-02-25 22:11:05

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