IOWA (6-2) VS. MICHIGAN (7-1)
DATE: December 6, 2019
TIME: 5:30 p.m. CT
LOCATION: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
RADIO: Learfield Sports
STREAMING: Fox Sports Go
LINE: Michigan -7.5
KENPOM: Michigan -7 (Iowa 26% win probability)
Remember the Hawkeye Challenge?
For those of you too young to remember, Iowa used to bring three hilariously overmatched low-majors into Iowa City every November for what was, at least ostensibly, a holiday tournament. It was a couple of guaranteed wins for Dr. Tom and [NAME REDACTED] while their teams geared up for Iowa State and the Big Ten season, another part of a low-stress November of record-padding blowouts.
I bring it up because Iowa is about to play its fourth game in eight days, all against high-major or NCAA Tournament-level teams, all away from Carver Hawkeye Arena. After splitting with Texas Tech and San Diego State in Las Vegas last week -- the former being the defending national runner-up -- Fran's boys headed to bleeping Syracuse, beat the Orange, and now are rewarded with a trip to Ann Arbor for a conference game with the No. 4 team in the country. Next week, it's Minnesota and a trip to Ames. So much for cupcake season.
This might also be the worst possible time for Iowa to catch Michigan. You know that surprising win over Texas Tech that Iowa got last week? Michigan got about three of those at Battle 4 Atlantis. The Wolverines beat Iowa State, which, whatever, but then knocked off North Carolina and Gonzaga in back-to-back nights to win Atlantis. They won an imaginary island which, when you really think about it, is a total Michigan thing to do. In any case, the absurd tournament run bumped Michigan from unranked to No. 4 in the AP Poll, a leap I'm fairly certain I've never seen before. And then, to make matters worse, the Wolverines were sent to No. 1 Louisville in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, lost, and got a bit disrespected by the Cardinals afterwards. So they're talented, on a roll, and probably a bit pissed off.
Michigan's Kenpom profile hasn't changed much under Juwon Howard: Play clean defense but challenge shots, and shoot the lights out of the opponent. Michigan is shooting 12 points higher on two-point shots than its opponents, 11 points higher from three. They don't foul, they don't draw fouls, they don't crash the glass. They don't really need to. There's no need for free points from the line or on extra possessions when you shoot like they have, and the risk of free points going the other way is too high to chance being out of position. If you're beating Michigan, you're probably out-shooting Michigan.
That's easier said than done. Junior forward Isaiah Livers (6'7", 230, 15.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg) is a problem: 49 percent from three, 55 percent inside the arc, 80 percent at the line, all on large enough quantities to make those legitimate. Junior off-guard Eli Brooks (6'1", 185, 11.5/3.1/2.5) isn't that far off of Livers's rates: 49 percent from three, 38 from two, 75 from the line. It's an efficiency nightmare before you even get to Jon Teske (7'1", 265, 13.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg) averaging a double-double on a 55 percent effective rate, or Zavier Simpson (6'0", 190, 11.9 ppg/8.9 apg) shooting 62 percent inside the arc and ranking fourth nationally in assist rate. There's no obvious place to focus. Michigan comes at you from everywhere.
So how did Louisville hold them to 43 points on 15/58 shooting? Therein lies Iowa's one route to potential success. In the last four games, Michigan has handed the fifth starting spot to freshman power forward Franz Wagner (6'9", 205, 6.0 ppg). While Wagner looks imposing, the actual numbers make him the most pedestrian player in the Woverines' rotation. Louisville looked at the roster and did the math: Let Teske and Wagner do whatever they were going to do in the lane, and let Simpson get into the lane and contest anything he tried to put up, but under no circumstances give away an open three. And so Teske gets 18 points, Simpson gets nine, Wagner gets his five, but Michigan shoots 3/19 from three. Isaiah Livers scored three on 1/9 from the field, and posted an offensive rating of 36. Brooks missed every shot he took. Louisville also struggled offensively, but it didn't much matter. It was still more efficient than Michigan shooting at that rate.
It certainly helps to have Louisville's talent. Iowa doesn't, and if the Hawkeyes try to defend Zavier Simpson with Jordan Bohannon it could be a long night. Fortunately, Iowa has other options; Connor McCaffery is emerging as a legitimate perimeter defense guy, Weiskamp has enough to hold his own against Livers, and Garza can control the lane and defend Teske when needed. There's still the matter of Brooks and their bench guys, but Iowa might have enough at the right spots to keep the Wolverines in check.
If they can, it's a matter of scoring on Michigan's defense, which might be even more difficult than stopping the offense. The Wolverines are ninth nationally in defensive efficiency. Only Creighton, they of the defense-optional shoot-whenever philosophy, has managed more than one point per possession against it. And where Iowa was well-suited to Syracuse's pack-the-lane zone, Michigan's profile is the polar opposite: Just 26 percent of opponent shots are from three, just 37 percent of made baskets come from an assist. The Wolverines are letting teams get into the lane on the dribble drive, then forcing tough shots instead of a post feed or kickout. The whole thing is kinda brilliant, forcing teams into taking the least efficient shots on the court (mid-range twos), then beating them with the most efficient shots (threes and layups).
And that's what makes it tough for Iowa, because Iowa will want to play Michigan in much the same way that Creighton (which has owned a poor man's version of Iowa's profile for three years now) did. Creighton scored points on Big Blue; the Bluejays' backcourt trio were all in double-digits. They even made a few threes. But it wasn't enough to handle the brutal efficiency of Michigan's offense against a defense that is pedestrian by design.
If Iowa can muster both the defense it showed against Texas Tech and Syracuse and the mid-range offense it showed early against San Diego State, the Hawkeyes have a chance. But asking for the best of this team on both sides of the ball, at the same time, in a fourth consecutive road game over the course of eight days? That might be too much to ask, at least on December 6.