The Wolverines were 7-0, sure. But those seven wins had come against the likes of three MAC schools and the two worst teams in the Big Ten. On top of that, Michigan had only played once in the last 18 days, and that was on Christmas Day.
So it was encouraging to see Michigan dominate a Maryland team coming off a massive victory against No. 6 Wisconsin. Even though the final spread was just 11 points, the game was completely one-sided.
But it was nothing compared to what’s happened since the Wolverines came back home.
In its two first ranked matchups of the season, Michigan completely blasted No. 19 Northwestern and No. 16 Minnesota in the span of four days.
Michigan led Northwestern by 29 points and won by 19 after the Wildcats made a run during garbage time. Against Minnesota, Michigan led by 37 before the starters came out, and settled for a 25-point victory.
So now here we are. Michigan is 10-0 and the last remaining unbeaten team in the Big Ten. How has this happened for a group that was expected to finish in the middle of the pack?
The No. 1 reason Michigan has dominated Big Ten play: team defense.
Franz Wagner, Eli Brooks and Chaundee Brown make up perhaps the best perimeter defensive trio in the nation.
Wagner has a combination of insane length and quick feet that allow him to both stay in front of guards and make up ground quickly when someone gets a step on him. Nobody is better at blocking jump shots because Wagner has the athletic ability to close out under control and the length to reach the top of his man’s followthrough.
Brooks’ transformation into a defensive stalwart is even more impressive because he doesn’t have great size or athleticism. He’s more of a pest, and that sets the tone for Michigan defensively, as it did when he shut down Minnesota star Marcus Carr for the majority of the first half.
Brown never, ever takes a play off. Whether he’s hounding ball handlers the length of the court, beating guys to loose balls or chasing down breakaways, Brown has settled into his role, and it’s an important one.
Those three guys are the leaders on the defensive end, but Isaiah Livers, Mike Smith, Brandon Johns and even freshman Hunter Dickinson take pride in their defense, as well.
Like Wagner, Livers had the size and length to be disruptive on the ball, and he’s an underrated help-side defender at the rim.
Size is a problem for Smith in certain matchups, but he’s getting in passing lanes and learning to keep his man in front.
Dickinson is averaging 1.4 blocks per game. It helps to be over 7 feet tall, but he’s also got good instincts and hasn’t gotten into foul trouble despite playing more than 30 minutes per game in Big Ten play.
Don’t sleep on Johns, either. In his last three games, Johns has blocked three shots, grabbed eight rebounds and made all eight of his field goal attempts for 18 points. In only 32 minutes on the court, that’s great production.
The Big Ten might as well name its Freshman of the Week award after Dickinson, who will earn the honors for the fifth time this season after dropping 28 points on 12 of 15 shooting with eight rebounds against Minnesota.
The only time Dickinson didn’t win the Big Ten Freshman of the Week this season, it was because Michigan didn’t play.
Dickinson’s matchup with talented Gophers center Liam Robbins was the storyline heading into Wednesday night’s game, but like the final score, that battle wasn’t even close.
In five conference games, Dickinson has scored 20, 13, 26, 19 and 28 points while shooting a combined 44 of 59 (74.6%) from the floor and grabbing 44 boards.
Dickinson is a major problem for opponents because he’s basically automatic around the rim. Robbins, who leads the conference in blocks and has been one of the best interior defenders, couldn’t even contain Dickinson, as Richard Pitino was forced to bring double teams.
That’s a dangerous game to play, though, because Dickinson is an elite passer out of the post and knows how to find the open man when a double team arrives. Whether that’s with a skip pass or a simple kick out and repost, Dickinson makes smart decisions more often than not.
Dickinson’s well-rounded offensive game essentially forces opponents to pick their poison: Allow the freshman to pick them apart inside or take their chances with Michigan’s 3-point shooting.
Improvements beyond the arc
Speaking of 3-point shooting, Michigan has been hot and cold beyond the arc this season.
In the Northwestern game, Michigan drained 12 of 27 attempts from 3-point range -- a big reason the Wolverines scored 85 points against a top 20 team.
But only six of 19 attempts went in vs. Maryland, and only four of 13 against Minnesota. Why is that so important? It shows Michigan is a threat from 3-point range, but doesn’t necessarily need to be hot from deep to win a game.
Unlike in the past, when Michigan had a Duncan Robinson or Derrick Walton who could absolutely dominate from long range, this year’s team is more about the quantity of threats.
Livers, Wagner, Brown, Brooks and Smith are all shooting between 35% and 43.5% from the 3-point line. As a team, Michigan shoots 35.8%, which is tied for 100th in the nation. But the fact that there are almost always four capable shooters on the court around Dickinson is difficult to defend.
It’s also worth noting that Wagner, Michigan’s most versatile wing, is a much better 3-point shooter than his overall 35.3% clip suggests. Wagner started the season 0-6 from beyond the arc in Michigan’s first two games. Since then, he’s 12-28, or 42.9%, over the last eight games, with multiple makes in each of Michigan’s last four contests.
Transfers accepting roles
Something that always comes up in Michigan’s postgame press conferences is the unselfishness of this team, and that’s been especially apparent for the two transfers.
As noted above, Brown has completely embraced his role as a defensive spark off the bench. In three years at Wake Forest, Brown took an average of 8.9 shots per game in 25.9 minutes.
His sophomore and junior years, Brown averaged around 29 minutes and nearly 10 shots per game. He was a full-time starter and a go-to scorer.
But Brown came to Michigan fully committed to winning. He’s playing just under 20 minutes per game and attempting around seven shots, on average.
Brown has twice gone scoreless in Big Ten play, shooting just twice against Penn State and three times against Maryland in 20 and 21 minutes, respectively. Why did he get so many minutes without being an offensive threat? He’s a game changer on defense, a solid rebounder and always, always hustles.
In a season that’s geared toward execution more so than young, raw talent, players like Brown who buy into the team mentality are even more valuable.
The transition has been even more dramatic for Smith, who attempted 19.3 field goals per game last year with Columbia. In four seasons in the Ivy League, Smith averaged 13.6, 17.6, 15.8 and 22.8 points per game. He had one of the highest usage rates in the country.
But now, he’s running an offense that has more potent weapons, and what has Smith done? He’s accepted his role as the quarterback of the offense without having to be the running back and wide receivers, as well. Smith is averaging just 5.8 shot attempts and 8.5 points per game -- but efficiency is more important than volume in this case.
Smith is dishing out a career-high 5.3 assists per game and blowing out his career shooting percentages -- making 54.3% of his shots and 43.5% of his threes. Michigan badly needed a point guard to take over after Xavier Simpson’s graduation, and so far, Smith has been the perfect fit.
Michigan has done almost everything right this season, and deservers credit for its 10-0 record, but there’s no denying the schedule has been light.
If the season were to end right now, only two of Michigan’s first 10 opponents would earn at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. It’s noteworthy that the Wolverines beat those two opponents by a combined 44 points, but the point still stands.
Nebraska, Penn State and Maryland could very well be the worst three teams in the Big Ten this season. They’re a combined 1-11 in conference play, and every other Big Ten team has at least two wins.
Northwestern and Minnesota have both been impressive, but they’re a combined 6-5 in the Big Ten and 16-6 overall. Most upper-tier teams should expect to beat both of them at home (though perhaps not as resoundingly as Michigan did).
One point in Michigan’s favor: Toledo and Bowling Green are the two best teams in the MAC, and one will likely end up in the NCAA Tournament. UCF is also a decent mid-major opponent.
Overall, though, Michigan doesn’t have a win against a true Big Ten title or Final Four contender. Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin are currently the class of the league, with Rutgers and Michigan State in the mix, despite slow starts in league play.
Michigan looks like it belongs in that discussion, but until one of those teams actually takes the court with the Wolverines, we can’t know for sure.
Luckily, it won’t be a long wait. Now that Saturday’s game is canceled due to COVID-19 cases in the Penn State program, Michigan’s next opponent will be No. 8 Wisconsin, which visits Ann Arbor on Tuesday night.
Then, at the start of February, Michigan has a stretch of four games against Michigan State and Illinois, at Wisconsin and back home against Rutgers.
The Wolverines also finish the season vs. Iowa and at Michigan State.
Michigan won’t go undefeated in Big Ten play. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Wolverines lose six, seven or even eight games the rest of the way. But they’ve taken care of the opponents on their schedule so far, and that’s all anyone can ask.
The question in the back of everyone’s mind: Will Michigan finish strong or limp to the finish line?
A year ago, the Wolverines started the season with seven straight wins, including blowouts of No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga on back-to-back days to win the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
Michigan was average over the final three months, though, going 12-12 with some lopsided losses. At one point, the team was 11-8 and in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament.
Is Michigan a true contender in the Big Ten or peaking too early for the second year in a row? Stay tuned.