Throughout the season, the narrative around men’s college basketball has been that there’s Gonzaga and Baylor, and everyone else. The Zags and Bears were clearly the two best teams in the country, the prohibitive favorites of the national champions, and no one else was even close. Instead of debates about the number 1, the discussion has focused on the number 3, that is, who is the best of the rest? It’s a place that has been bouncing around from team to team for most of the past few months.
While Gonzaga and Baylor might still be a bit above the field because neither team has lost a game, Michigan is arguing that it is much closer to the Gonzaga / Baylor level than the “everyone else” level.
It’s an argument strengthened by the fact that teams ranked 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 have suffered losses in the last five days. Of course, No. 4 is Ohio State, which saw Michigan enter Columbus on Sunday, score 92 points and come out with a declaration victory.
The Wolverines had another one of those on Thursday.
They overcame a slow first half against Iowa to knock No. 9 Hawkeyes out of the gym in the second half, walking away for a dominant 79-57 victory. Michigan center Hunter Dickinson more than defended himself against Iowa’s Luka Garza, forcing the Wooden Award favorite to a 6-of-19 shooting from the field while scoring 14 points at the other end. Franz Wagner, the Wolverines’ top NBA draft prospect, scored 21 points and was consistent throughout the game, while Isaiah Livers made four 3-pointers and scored 16 points.
Michigan’s defense in the Big Ten game has been his calling card, and that was no different Thursday. Going into the week, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, the fewest points Iowa had scored in the middle of the entire season was 31. The Hawkeyes didn’t hit that number in any half against Michigan. And it wasn’t just Garza who was fighting. Iowa shot 6 of 19 from 3-point range, making just two shots from behind the arc in the second half.
Earlier in the season, Michigan began to gain some recognition as one of the best teams in the nation after a not-so-close 23-point win over Wisconsin. Four days later, the Wolverines lost at Minnesota by 18. They followed up with a pair of Big Ten wins, but then we didn’t see them play for 23 days due to a state-mandated hiatus. So while there was evidence that Michigan was the third best team in the country, it was difficult to really buy the Wolverines because we didn’t know what they would look like after the break.
They have answered that question in an impressive way. They won at Wisconsin in their first game back, beat Rutgers and then got a win over Ohio State on Sunday. Then came Thursday’s test against an Iowa team that has the best offense in the country and improved defense. And the game was not in doubt during the last 16 minutes of play.
Gonzaga and Baylor will continue to enter the NCAA tournament as the two favorites unless one or both lose a game, but the gap between Michigan and everyone else is growing. It’s a claim backed by metrics. The Wolverines are No. 3 on KenPom, No. 3 in Sagarin’s ratings, and No. 3 on ESPN’s record strength metric. They are 7-1 against Quadrant 1 and 11-1 opponents against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents. KenPom’s tight efficiency margin has placed Gonzaga and Baylor at 1 and 2 in any order since the first game of the season. from Baylor, but Michigan’s win on Thursday reduced Baylor’s lead to just 0.48. (Gonzaga has steadily walked away from the group in the West Coast Conference game.)
Michigan is elite on both ends of the court. The Wolverines are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, shooting better than 39% from behind the arc, but they are also capable of throwing the ball to Dickinson on the block and landing a basket. They have five players who have made at least 20 triples this season at a rate of 36.7% or better. Wagner and Livers are versatile scorers on the band. Mike Smith, the Columbia transfer graduate 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 become a veteran playmaker who effectively distributes, guards the ball, and makes 3-pointers. . Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown adds pop from the bank.
Defensively, head coach Juwan Howard has multiple high-level individual defenders. Wagner has improved dramatically on that end of the floor; Dickinson just smothered Garza and has shown that he can dominate the crystal; and Eli Brooks is one of the Big Ten’s best defenders. Wolverines are great at contesting shots inside the arc and keeping opponents out of the paint.
Howard is the favorite for the national coach of the year. He lost two senior starters last season in Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, replaced them with Smith and Dickinson, and has this team buying on both ends of the floor.
And after Thursday, he also has a team that has separated at the top of the college basketball landscape.