IOWA (16-5, 5-5) VS. MICHIGAN (20-1, 9-1)
Five days after playing Spider Man Pointing At Himself, Iowa hoops plays its polar opposite: The nearly-undefeated Michigan Wolverines, for the only time this season.
The five-year story of Michigan is pretty simple. John Beilein, who used to make his name on a 1-3-1 zone defense, abandoned that philosophy some time ago in favor of brutal offensive efficiency. For a time, that worked wonders in Ann Arbor. Beilein's teams have made the NCAA Tournament eight times in the last decade, every time with an offense ranked in the top 40 nationally. His 2012-13 team, the most efficient offensive team in the nation, was the national runner-up. Defense was never really that important to what Michigan was doing.
But Michigan's defense truly began to slip in 2014-15, and a 16-16 season followed by a first-round exit convinced Beilein he needed to stop opponents from time to time. He designated a defensive coordinator, of sorts, in 2016-17, but didn't get much improvement.
Enter Luke Yaklich, an Illinois State assistant described in just about every article written about him as a "basketball sponge." The results were immediate. Michigan was third in the nation in defensive efficiency last year en route to another runner-up finish in the NCAAs. This year, not only is Michigan best nationally in defensive efficiency, but if they maintain their current efficiency rating (83.7 points allowed per 100 possessions), they would be the best defensive team of the Kenpom era (going back to 2001-02).
How do the Wolverines do it? It's pretty simple, at least on paper: They don't foul (just 21.5% free throw rate, second nationally), they don't give up offensive rebounds (24.2% offensive rebounds allowed, 26th nationally), and they contest everything (43.6% effective field goal rate allowed, seventh nationally). More importantly, Michigan forces opponents into the least efficient shots on the floor: Michigan opponents get 60.4% of their points on two-point baskets, the second-highest percentage nationally. And those same opponents are shooting a horrific 43% on two-point attempts, so it's hardly a layup drill. This is the inevitable antidote to evolutionary three-point basketball: If teams are giving up on mid-range jumpers, just gift them as many mid-range jumpers as they want and close out everything else. That, combined with the typical Beilein snail's pace, makes points incredibly difficult to come by.
And so where Beilein used to cover up defensive inefficiency by shooting opponents out of the gym, Michigan now uses its defense to cover up for a fairly pedestrian offense. They don't turn it over -- no team in the country gives up fewer live-ball turnovers -- but the Wolverines' 52.4% effective field goal rate is middle-of-the-pack nationally, and they've dropped two percent from that number in conference play. They don't rebound their own misses all that well, they don't get to the free throw line, and they don't make many free throws when they get there. That 112.8 points per 100 possessions is respectable, but it's kinda been through smoke and mirrors that they're even that good.
Michigan's slow pace and lack of fouling has allowed them to play the fewest bench minutes of any Power Six team in the nation this season, and the Wolverines' rotation only goes seven deep on most nights. The three-man guard rotation of Zavier Simpson (6'0", 190, 8.9 ppg, 5.9 apg), Jordan Poole (6'5", 195, 12.7 ppg) and Eli Brooks (6'1", 185, 3.0 ppg) handle the perimeter, but Michigan really goes to work in the paint. Forward Ignas Brazdeikis (6'7", 215) leads the Wolverines in scoring (15.1 ppg) and is second on the team in rebounding (5.5 rpg). Center Jon Teske is a legit seven-footer (7'1", 260) who can shoot from the perimeter when needed (12/35 from three) and rebounds at a high rate. And small forward Charles Matthews (6'6", 205) provides senior leadership and 12.9 points per game. Both Poole and Brazdeikis are legitimate threats from the perimeter, but nobody is as lethal as backup forward Isaiah Livers (6'7", 235), who is shooting 43 percent from behind the arc this year.
Wisconsin is the only team to have beaten Michigan all year. The Badgers did it by forcing 16 turnovers, being comfortable with Michigan's plodding pace, and having Ethan Happ make all those mid-range shots that Mighigan gave him. Iowa is a bowling ball of knives on offense this year, but mid-range jumpers haven't exactly been in the game plan.
No, the path to victory for Iowa appears pretty simple: Make Michigan uncomfortable with tempo to the extent possible, and trust that Cook and Garza can get Michigan into foul trouble as they did against the equally foul-averse Iowa State. If the combination of tempo and fouls makes Michigan dig deeper into its bench, Iowa has a legitimate shot of the upset. But if the Wolverines are allowed to force Iowa into bad shots and whittle away at the Hawkeyes all night, it could turn into a long, slow, painful death.