ANN ARBOR, Mich. – How does Michigan keep doing it?
Nobody is supposed to run through this year’s Big Ten, which includes four of the top 10 teams in the country and seven others vying for NCAA Tournament spots.
The league is an absolute grind. Everyone keeps waiting for the Wolverines to have an off game -- it would be understandable, especially after a 23-day layoff. But instead, Michigan just keeps one-upping itself, over and over.
On Thursday, Michigan’s true freshman center dominated the favorite for National Player of the Year. And he did so on both ends of the court.
Dickinson vs. Garza
Offensively, Dickinson was solid, dropping in 14 points on 6-13 shooting with one assist and three offensive rebounds. But unlike in previous performances, when Dickinson was racking up Big Ten Player of the Week awards because of his stat sheet, Thursday’s win was secured on the defensive end.
Iowa center Luka Garza came into the game leading the nation in scoring at over 24 points per game. He’s expected to win the Naismith Award, but the game against Michigan didn’t help his cause.
Many Michigan fans will remember last season, when Garza dropped 44 and 33 points on the Wolverines in their two games against Iowa. Garza was considered a solid player at the time, but those games acted as a sort of coming out party for him as a top player nationally.
His strength and footwork around the rim are second to none, and he can step out beyond the arc, where he shoots 44.6%. That’s right: a 6-foot-11, 265-pound beast who makes threes at the same clip as Isaiah Livers. It’s a matchup nightmare.
But Dickinson was more than up to the challenge. As the primary defender on Garza, he helped Michigan hold the senior to 16 points on 6-for-19 shooting and four rebounds.
Two of Dickinson’s three blocks victimized Garza, including one on Iowa’s first possession, and another in which the 7-footer moved his feet and stayed in front of Garza as he drove down the lane:
In the end, Garza finished 3-14 with eight points when Dickinson was defending him. That’s an incredible defensive effort against a senior who averages 24.3 points per game on 54.8% shooting.
The most impressive part of Michigan’s win against Iowa: Dickinson outplayed perhaps the best player in the nation, and he wasn’t even the top performer on his own team.
Franz Wagner put his deep offensive arsenal on display Thursday, making nine of 12 shots for an efficient 21 points. When Dickinson picked up his third foul early in the second half, Wagner went to work, driving for four difficult layups -- two with his left hand -- during a long stretch in which Michigan turned a one-point deficit into a 21-point lead.
Wagner dazzled with a one-handed bounce pass to Livers on a fast break and dropped another dime to a cutting Eli Brooks in the paint, though that shot was eventually blocked. He also nailed two of his three attempts from beyond the arc.
The sophomore will be a first-round pick in the NBA draft whenever he decides to declare, and Thursday’s performance is a perfect example of why.
His length, a 6-foot-9, makes Wagner an elite defensive player because he’s always in passing lanes. More often than not he’s able to stay in front of ball handlers, and when he does get beat, he has the length and explosiveness to recover and get his hand on shots.
When Wagner is on his game, Michigan’s offense goes to a whole new level, and that was the case in the second half against Iowa, as the Wolverines turned a three-point game at halftime between two top-10 opponents into a laugher.
What this means
The only drama left in the regular season for Michigan: Will it win the Big Ten title and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?
On Saturday, Michigan faces a tricky test at Indiana, a team that’s desperate for another signature win to secure its spot in the Big Dance. Michigan can’t afford to overlook the Hoosiers after a pair of top 10 wins, especially since the Big Ten title race could conceivably end this weekend.
If Michigan defeats the Hoosiers, Illinois will have to win at Wisconsin -- possibly without star guard Ayo Dosunmu -- to stay alive. Wins by Michigan and Wisconsin would make Juwan Howard’s team the runaway champion of the best conference in college hoops.
Meanwhile, the race for a No. 1 seed is close to over. Even if Michigan lost three of its last five games -- Indiana, Illinois, Michigan State twice and the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal game -- it would finish with a 19-4 record.
There’s still a lot of season left to play, but Michigan is closing in on some special achievements.