IOWA (12-5, 3-3) VS. MICHIGAN (11-5, 2-3)
What a difference a month makes.
When Iowa last saw Michigan on December 6, the Wolverines were ranked in the national top five. While they had just lost to top-ranked Louisville -- another team that doesn't look quite as good a month later -- Big Blue had recently handed Gonzaga their only loss of the season and taken out North Carolina and Iowa State in the same tournament. Iowa, on the other hand, had finally found some form in a win over Texas Tech but still looked very much like a work in progress.
Fast forward 42 days, and the roles have nearly reversed. Michigan's wins over the Tar Heels and Cyclones (and the loss to Louisville) don't look nearly as good in retrospect, and the Wolverines have otherwise fallen victim to the same bugaboo that have hit every Big Ten team: Road games. Michigan is now 11-5, sub-.500 in the conference, and 0-4 in true road games this season. All of those losses are excusable -- the aforementioned Louisville, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota are all inside the Kenpom top 31 -- but the road woes have moved beyond coincidence and firmly into trend territory.
Juwan Howard is doing much of what made John Beilein's Michigan teams successful. The Wolverines remain one of the best shooting teams in the nation, firing at a 55% effective field goal rate, solid from three (36%) and excellent from inside the arc (55%). They don't turn the ball over, and so while Michigan doesn't get to the foul line -- among Big Six conference teams, only Notre Dame, Virginia and Texas shoot fewer free throws -- they get, and make, so many shots that it's not that important.
The Wolverines also make so many shots that they can ignore offensive rebounding, which improves a conservative-but-stifling defense. Michigan is no longer a top 5 defense, as it was in the last two years, but it's still excellent. They guard the perimeter relentlessly, especially mindful of passing lanes. The basic concept is to permit a dribbler inside the arc, then block off any exit routes and force bad shots. Consequently, Michigan allows the second-fewest three-point attempts in the nation and third-fewest assists.
The first Iowa-Michigan game was a great example of what the Wolverines try to do. Iowa has one of the highest assist/made basket ratios in the nation, with nearly two assists for every three buckets. Against Michigan, Iowa had just 13 assists on 35 made shots, roughly half of their usual output and right at the Wolverines' defensive average. Michigan's defense did what it philosophically wants to do.
And yet, Iowa nearly won in Ann Arbor for one big reason: Luka Garza. Where teams with perimeter-oriented offensive production struggle mightily against Michigan's defense as undersized guards get lost in the trees, Iowa runs everything through a 6'11" Peacock that can drop 40 without help if given the opportunity. Michigan doesn't foul because that's too easy, and it doesn't really double in the post because that leads to open perimeter shots, so a beast in the post can be Kryptonite. It was against Illinois, where Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili combined for 31. It was against Minnesota earlier this week, where Daniel Oturu scored 30. And it was the last time they played Iowa, when Garza scored 44.
If Iowa gets the same from Garza Friday night at home, it's probably enough to win. While Michigan is average 1.11 points per possession for the season as a whole, its offensive efficiency drops to 0.89 points per possession in true road games; the Wolverines have only cracked 1.00 points per possession at Minnesota, and even then just barely (67 points in 63 possessions). Iowa's defense was not good in Crisler, and hasn't been great overall, but it has improved considerably since mid-December, and no opponent has cracked 1.00 points per possession in Carver Hawkeye since Oral Roberts in early November.
Michigan went ahead and let Garza score all he wanted last month. It had its philosophy, and it kept Iowa's feet on the ground. On the return trip, Iowa might well rely on its own formula -- pound the post and the boards until they're forced to give away threes -- to its own version of a runaway win.