ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The college basketball world has been hesitant to buy into Michigan because of a soft schedule, but after the Wolverines carved through two more Big Ten opponents to remain undefeated, it might be time to take this team more seriously.
COVID-19 threw the start of the college basketball season into a tailspin, and Michigan cobbled together what ended up being a very forgiving non-conference slate.
By mid-December, the Wolverines were 6-0, but only one of their wins had come against a team that currently ranks inside the Kenpom top 80, and that was Penn State (No. 48).
On top of its forgettable schedule, Michigan had an 11-day stretch without playing, returned for one game against Nebraska -- the worst team in the Big Ten -- and then had nearly another full week off.
The truth of the matter is, most people probably didn’t watch any Michigan games in 2020, unless they tuned in for overtime against Oakland. The team had taken care of business, but none of its games were notable.
But the narrative has started to change in the last five days.
First, Michigan visited a Maryland team that was coming off upset win over No. 6 Wisconsin. The game was technically close at halftime, and the Wolverines actually trailed early in the second half, but anyone who watched the game could see they dominated the Terrapins.
Michigan won the game by 11 points. A road blowout against a possible NCAA Tournament team? That raised some eyebrows, but still, it was only one game, and Maryland isn’t one of the better teams in the league.
On Sunday night, Michigan validated its undefeated start by destroying No. 19 Northwestern, a team that already has wins over Michigan State and Ohio State, as well as on the road against Indiana.
After Northwestern jumped out to an early 6-0 lead, Michigan went on a 13-2 run and never looked back, leading by 14 at halftime and stretching that lead to 29 points before Juwan Howard emptied his bench.
What does this mean?
To be clear, Michigan’s schedule is still on the lighter side. Northwestern will likely drop from the top 25 on Monday, and the Wolverines still haven’t played any of the top-tier teams in the Big Ten -- Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Rutgers, Ohio State, Michigan State and Minnesota are candidates for that group.
It’s entirely possible that in four Big Ten games, Michigan has played the three worst teams in the league: Nebraska, Penn State and Maryland.
But Michigan’s hot start can no longer be ignored. While the rest of the Big Ten has at least two losses this season, the Wolverines are 9-0. They’ve won their last three conference games by a combined 41 points.
Everything starts with Franz Wagner, who has hit his stride on both ends of the court and reclaimed his place as Michigan’s best player.
Wagner is a defensive menace, with a unique combination of quick feet and ridiculous length. Add Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown to that equation, and Michigan’s perimeter defense has suddenly become its calling card.
The offense isn’t bad, either.
Wagner, Brooks and Brown were part of an attack that made 12 three-pointers against Northwestern. Mike Smith, Isaiah Livers and Brandon Johns also connected from beyond the arc. If Michigan shoots at a reasonable clip from deep, the offense is hard to stop.
That’s because inside, Hunter Dickinson has become a consistent force. He had maybe his worst game of the season Sunday, but still scored 19 points on eight of 12 shooting against Northwestern.
On the season, Dickinson is averaging 16.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting 71.8% from the floor and 71.4% from the free throw line. The freshman is a willing and talented passer out of the post and an able defender. Foul trouble hasn’t been an issue, and he even hit a pair of 15-foot jump shots against Northwestern.
Nine games into his college career, Dickinson is already one of the go-to options for Michigan, and the spotlight isn’t too bright.
All of those factors have resulted in a thus-unblemished record, one of the few remaining in college basketball:
- Drake (12-0)
- Gonzaga (10-0)
- Baylor (9-0)
- Michigan (9-0)
- Winthrop (7-0)
- The Citadel (7-0)
- Hawaii (2-0)
- UC San Diego (2-0)
- Alabam A&M (2-0)
- Siena (1-0)
That’s right: Out of 344 college basketball teams (excluding the Ivy League from the total 357, since they don’t have a season due to the pandemic, and the five teams mentioned below), only 10 remain unbeaten.
NOTE: Boston University, Holy Cross, American and Loyola-Maryland (all Patriot League members), as well as Merrimack (NEC) have not started their seasons.
Michigan is one of only six Division I teams to be undefeated with more than two games played, and one of only two major conference (Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC) teams without a loss.
Michigan will surely lose some games this season, maybe even several. The Big Ten is as strong and deep as it’s been in my lifetime. But as of Jan. 4, 2021, Howard’s team has earned some respect.
On Monday, the Wolverines opened as the No. 6 team in the NET rankings and sit at No. 10 in Kenpom.
The schedule will only get tougher from here, but it looks like Michigan could be a team that, at the very least, finishes in the upper half of a loaded Big Ten.