If you’re a regular reader around here, you’re probably under the impression that the sky is falling for Iowa basketball.
Well, it’s not. But it’s close.
The Hawkeyes play Michigan tomorrow night, and the Wolverines might just be the best team in the nation. They do have the No. 1 defense according to KenPom and a bunch of other metrics the millennials are using these days.
Ben Ross: Hi!
Michigan is reloading year after year on pace with the bluebloods of college basketball. And by all accounts, John Beilein is running a squeaky clean program. What’s it like to cheer for such a great team? Just kidding. But seriously.
Sam Dodge: I’m pretty careful to say that I cheer for Michigan, but I’m originally from Ann Arbor and remember the Brian Ellerbe and Tommy Amaker years. To hear someone refer to this program in the same breath as “blue-bloods” is a remarkable thing. It was about a decade ago that Michigan was in the midst of a 13-year NCAA Tournament drought.
In the early Beilein years, the charm of his teams stemmed from walk-ons and 3-stars squeezing out upsets and the occasional Big Ten championship. Ever since Nik Stauskas, however, Michigan has a bit of Joakim Noah identity. Basically, they have a bunch of players that are eminently hateable, but incredibly effective.
Ignas Brazdeikis, who literally likes calling himself a villain, falls into that category. Charles Matthews laughs in peoples faces. Zavier Simpson picked a fight with Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson Tuesday. It’s a team of lovable trolls, except to those outside Ann Arbor.
BR: Alrighty, back to that reloading thing. Tell me, who’s taking over for Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Mo Wagner and Duncan Robinson? How is this team different than those of past Michigan squads?
SD: Regarding Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson, Beilein trots out a pair of more versatile guards in Brazdeikis and sophomore Jordan Poole. Brazdeikis replaces Robinson on the wing, and the Canadian freshman is a better driver, defender, and only slightly worse as a shooter (37.1% versus Robinson’s 38.1%).
Poole possesses the same slashing prowess as Abdur-Rahkman, but has a much more consistent jumper (41% to Rahkman’s 36% from behind the arc). Poole occasionally turns it over by getting overly crafty, but he’s a mini-run waiting to happen.
The biggest difference between the last few years and this one is Jon Teske filling in for Wagner. The 7-footer is not the scorer Wagner was, but his presence in the middle in the lynchpin for the top-ranked efficiency defense in the country per Ken Pomeroy. He has 22 blocks so far in conference play, and just got done forcing Kaleb Wesson into just 12 points on 12 shots.
Plus, he hits nearly 35% of his threes and averages an alley-oop in every game. He’s kind of got it all.
BR: Iowa’s lack of defense has been long-lamented around these parts. Earlier in the season, I read about how Beilein hired a defensive coordinator more or less in Luke Yaklich. This is more of a statement than it is a question, I guess. Michigan is currently No. 1 in the nation in defensive efficiency, and finished last season No. 3 in the country. Defense has been a hot topic around here lately.
Basically, what I’m asking is: who and what can we expect to see out of Michigan in its effort to beat Iowa Friday?
SD: Tyler Cook and Luke Garza have given Michigan fits recently. Last year in Iowa City, Cook racked up 28 points, and reached double figures in each of the last four meetings. Meanwhile, Garza tallied 22 points in Ann Arbor last year.
Those two are highest-usage players for the Hawkeyes, so Brazdeikis’ and Teske’s defense looms large. The other defender to watch is Simpson, who is a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist.
It’s been almost a given this year that Simpson will contain, if not eliminate, his point guard matchup. I think the key for Iowa to win is Bohannon getting to double digits on as few shots as possible.
Michigan’s incredibly good in transition defense, as well, and will slow the pace. Easy fast-break points don’t happen often against the Wolverines.
Despite the defensive issues in Iowa City, Michigan occasionally gets into extended shooting funks. That plus efficient offense from the trio named above would go a long way towards pulling the upset.
BR: Michigan, really, is on a tear right now. The Wolverines have just one hiccup on the year--and it took a superman performance from Ethan Happ to give the Wolverines their lone loss so far. Is it championship or bust for this team? Do you think you deserve a title after losing two title games in the past five years?
SD: Without getting overly hysterical, yes. This is the year to win the national championship.
Michigan ran into two tremendous teams in its two title game losses. Louisville in 2013 and Villanova last year were far and away the No. 1 teams in the country per advanced stats. The Wolverines would have needed perfect games to win those.
There’s far more parity in college basketball this year. Duke has Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish, but the loss of Tre Jones denies them a point guard. No point guard come March is bad news. The best of the rest in the country is Virginia and Tennessee (both run by tournament underachievers) and Gonzaga (only one Final Four in school history).
This is Michigan’s chance to get to the national title game and not face an unbeatable titan.
BR: Tell us about Ignas Brazdeikis.
He’s unusually poised for a freshman. He doesn’t turn the ball over (top-100 turnover rate), has the highest-usage rate on the team already and has scored double-digits in eight of nine conference games.
He’s also taken home Big Ten Freshman of the Week four times already.
As mentioned already, he’s got the likability and face-punchability of early days Draco Malfoy (yes, I’m mentioning the face-punchability of a small child). Brazdeikis runs his fingers through his slicked back hair constantly, exponentially upping his troll factor.
His most hateable quality for opposing fans, though, is that he’s damn good. Arm yourself with soft things to throw at your TV.
BR: And finally, what’s your prediction for Friday?
SD:Michigan’s one loss this year came on the road, but against a team with an elite defense. As you talked about, Iowa has anything but that.
However, the Wolverines have lost three of its last four at Carver-Hawkeye. It’s simply hard to win on the road in the Big Ten.
My mind says Michigan wins with excellent defense and enough offense. My gut is telling me Iowa wants this game badly to avoid the dreaded 7-through-10 seeds in the tournament.
I’ll say Michigan takes it 73-69 with a surge in the final minutes.
Thanks to Sam for taking the time to answer these questions. I hope we dig a grave for Michigan in Carver.