When I woke up this morning, I had a text from my cousin: “Are you convinced Michigan is good?”
On the surface, it’s a strange question. Michigan is the only undefeated team remaining in what appears to be far and away the best conference in college hoops. The Wolverines rose to No. 16 in the latest AP poll. Long story short: All they’ve done is win the games in front of them.
But dig a little deeper. Michigan doesn’t have a single win inside the Kenpom top 50. It only has three inside the top 100. No matter what went down in overtime, that first 40 minutes against Oakland did, in fact, happen. And Michigan hasn’t done anything outstanding to get that memory out of my brain.
So I couldn’t respond, “Yes, they’re undefeated,” or, “Look at the Big Ten standings!”
“No, I’m not convinced,” I said. “I have no clue.”
The rankings actually provide a pretty clear picture of Michigan’s standing. The Wolverines are No. 16 overall, but they’re also the sixth-highest team in the conference, and one loss away from dropping to ninth.
While Michigan has coasted through a schedule of MAC teams and Big Ten bottom feeders, Northwestern has knocked off Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State in a span of six days. Michigan State has a win at Duke. Ohio State beat UCLA and Rutgers. Illinois has played five or more NCAA Tournament teams. Wisconsin beat Louisville by 37 (thirty-seven!).
So how in the world are we supposed to form a concrete opinion of Michigan, based on so little? Well, let’s give it a shot.
Based on early results and, frankly, what my eyes tell me, there appear to be five true contenders at the top of the Big Ten:
- Michigan State
Yes, Illinois has three losses. Yes, Iowa and Michigan State each have two. But these five teams are battle tested and already have marquee wins.
Wisconsin went to East Lansing and upset the Spartans a week after embarrassing Louisville. Illinois and Michigan State have both knocked off Duke and experienced elite competition.
Iowa is led by Luka Garza, perhaps the best player in the nation, beat North Carolina and gave No. 1 Gonzaga a battle.
Rutgers has already beaten Syracuse and Illinois, and if not for injuries and foul trouble, would probably still be undefeated.
The next tier includes three teams that might or might not be better than Michigan, but they absolutely have better wins at this point.
- Ohio State
Northwestern just had the most impressive week of any team in the country so far, beating then-No. 4 Michigan State, upsetting Indiana on the road and then coming back to beat then-No. 23 Ohio State.
Suddenly, the Wildcats are 6-1 with three quality wins and just a one-point loss to 5-2 Pittsburgh.
Ohio State, meanwhile, has losses at Purdue and at Northwestern, but can mask those blemishes with wins over UCLA, then-No. 11 Rutgers and at Notre Dame.
The resume as a whole might not be much stronger than Michigan’s because of the losses, but there’s no debate the wins are better.
Minnesota just picked up its first signature win over the weekend, coming back to defeat then-No. 4 Iowa in overtime. The Golden Gophers have also knocked off 7-1 St. Louis.
Right now, I would put Michigan at the top of the third tier, with a chance to jump into the group above with one notable win.
Purdue lost a pair of tossup games to Clemson and Miami (Miami was without its star player, too) during the non-conference schedule. But Purdue also beat Oakland by 43 points and has victories against Ohio State, Notre Dame and Maryland.
It doesn’t look like Purdue is better than Michigan, but there aren’t physical results to base that off of, just yet.
Indiana gets a very generous invitation into this tier, based solely on the strength of its schedule.
On one hand, the Hoosiers have four losses. But all four are to currently ranked teams -- No. 8 Texas, No. 15 Illinois, No. 18 Florida State and No. 19 Northwestern.
Indiana also has a 16-point win over Stanford, a 21-point win over Providence and a win against Butler.
Even the bottom tier of the Big Ten is dangerous, but somebody has to finish 12th, 13th and 14th.
Right now, Nebraska is probably the worst team in the league. Penn State and Maryland have been a bit more competitive overall.
- Penn State
If Maryland is truly the 12th-best team in the Big Ten, that alone solidifies the league as the best in the country.
The Terps were considered a fringe NCAA Tournament team coming into the season, and despite having three early losses, they have a chance to salvage their resume after dominating a weak non-conference schedule.
Penn State was a play away from beating Michigan in Ann Arbor, and that came immediately after the Nittany Lions beat then-No. 15 Virginia Tech by 20 points on the road. Even without Pat Chambers, Penn State will upset a few teams this season.
Nebraska’s resume is terrible, but with Teddy Allen, Dalano Banton and Trey McGowens, Fred Hoiberg at least has some legitimate weapons. The Huskers gave Wisconsin and Michigan 20-minute scares last week.
Depending on what happens over the next two weeks, Michigan could legitimately rank anywhere between sixth and 11th in the Big Ten pecking order, but right now, in terms of resume, I would put the Wolverines right at No. 9.
It’s more about lack of opportunity than anything else, but that won’t last long. Of the remaining 18 games on Michigan’s schedule, 12 will come against teams currently ranked in the top 25, including eight out of nine to end the season.
We might not know much about this Michigan team right now. But we will soon.