By Patrick Vint on February 25, 2021 at 2:00 pm
Eat yer livers, boys!
© Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC


TIME 6:00 pm CT
WHERE Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
RADIO Learfield Affiliates
LINE Michigan -5
KENPOM Michigan -3
17-6 RECORD 16-1
11-5 CONF. 11-1
126.9 (1st) OFF. EFF. 120.9 (6th)
97.2 (75th) DEF. EFF. 90.2 (12th)
69.7 POSS. 67.5
55.6 (19th) eFG% 56.9 (6th)

After three months of games, this is what it comes down to: Iowa goes to Michigan with seeding -- and, at least in theory, a Big Ten title -- on the line.  ESPN will televise, with Dick Vitale on the call.  It's a big deal.

We've been here before.  Back in January 2014, Iowa had made it into the Top 10 for the first time in over a decade when it went to Ann Arbor.  Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble fought a war that day and lost, and nothing was ever quite the same that season; Iowa went 5-7 from that date forward, lost to Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, and bounced out of the NCAAs in a play-in game loss.  Two years later, Iowa was flying high again as it went to Michigan in January, and cruised to a victory.

This current team also has some history in Ann Arbor.  Last year, Luka Garza scored 44, but Iowa gave up 103 in an early-season loss to Michigan.  Iowa's second-leading scorer was Connor McCaffery with 12 points, and the Wolverines had six players with double-digit scoring, none with more than 18.  The collective outperformed the singular greatness. 

That might as well be the Michigan program motto.  Juwan Howard's program presents one of the most interesting Kenpom profiles in recent memory.  The team is built around freshman center Hunter Dickinson (7'1", 255), who has emerged as one of the great all-around post players in the nation, with shooters everywhere else.  In that way, they look a lot like Iowa.  But where Iowa relies on Joe Wieskamp as a Luka Garza running mate, Michigan spreads the responsibility between a handful of players, mostly seniors.  The names are familiar: Isaiah Livers.  Mike Smith.  Franz Wagner.  Eli Brooks.  Chaundee Brown.  None of them stand out as superstars.  Collectively they are lethal.

Let's start with Dickinson, currently sixth in the Kenpom Player of the Year standings.  He leads the Wolverines in scoring (15.0 ppg), rebounding (7.8 rpg), and blocked shots (1.6 bpg).  He's shooting 64% from the field (only four three-point attempts in there), and ranks among the national top 50 in effective shooting percentage, true shooting percentage and offensive rebounding rate. He doesn't foul much (3.4 fouls per 40 minutes), he makes free throws (76% at the line), and he's over seven feet tall, which certainly contributes to the nation's best two-point defense.

That offensive rebounding rate is crucial.  The glaring hole in Iowa's statistical profile is defensive rebounding; the Hawkeyes rebound less than 70% of its opponents' missed shots, 261st nationally and second-worst in the Big Ten.  An opponent's ability to crash the offensive glass has directly affected Iowa's defensive efficiency.  Six Iowa opponents have scored more than 1.10 points per possession this year; five of those six are in the national top 125 in offensive rebounding rate.  Gonzaga rebounded 40% of its misses.  Michigan State tracked down 44% of its misses.  Ohio State got 31%.  And now Iowa faces Michigan, 86th nationally in offensive rebound rate with Dickinson in the middle and the sort of field goal rate that makes second-chance possessions lethal.

As for the rest of the team, Michigan runs essentially a four-man rotation for three perimeter spots.  Mike Smith (5'11", 185, 8.6 ppg) mostly runs the point and leads the conference in assists (5.4 apg).  Eli Brooks (6'1", 185, 9.0 ppg, 3.3 apg) is the starting two-guard, and shifts to the point when Smith is out.  Isaiah Livers (6'7", 230, 14.4/5.9/2.4) starts at the small forward, and Chaundee Brown (6'5", 215, 8.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg) mostly acts as a backup to both Brooks and Livers.  All four of them shoot better than 37% from three; all but Brooks are north of 40%.  Livers in particular is a problem: He's shooting 53% inside the arc, 43% outside it, and gets plenty of shots from both.  Livers is the closest thing to Wieskamp on the roster, though not as heavily used.

Dickinson is joined in the frontcourt by Franz Wagner (6'9", 220), a 'stretch four' in its purest form.  Wagner is third on the team in scoring (12.4 ppg), second in rebounding (6.7 rpg), third in assists (3.0 apg) and second in assist rate.  He shoots 36% from three and 60% from two.  He is second on the squad in fouls drawn, and makes 83% at the free throw line.  ESPN's stat sheet classifies him as a guard.  Brandon Johns (6'8", 240, 4.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg) backs up Wagner; occasionally, Michigan opts to go small, move Livers to the four, and bring in Brown as a third guard.  Howard also has Austin Davis (6'10", 250, 6.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg) at his disposal; Davis generally backs up Dickinson, is extremely effective around the rim, and hasn't attempted a three-point shot all year.

As if that wasn't enough, there's Michigan's defense.  The Wolverines are first in the conference in defensive efficiency, built in large part on an uncanny ability to shut down interior offense without fouling.  Opponents are making just 41% of two-point attempts against Michigan, and getting to the line on less than one in four shot attempts.  The Wolverines don't force turnovers or steals.  They don't defend the three in any exceptional way.  They simply shut down interior offense and make opponents win from the perimeter. 

So far, nobody has been able to do that well enough to win.  Just three teams have managed to score more than 1.10 points per possession on Michigan.  Maryland made 59% from three, but Dickinson went off for 26 on 10/11 shooting.  Ohio State shot 50% from three last weekend; Michigan shot 48% in response.  Bowling Green shot 42% from three, but they were Bowling Green.  Minnesota slaughtered them on a day where their shooting was off, but the Gophers scored just 75 points in 71 possessions in that game.  That loss was from poor shooting more than any breakdown in the Michigan defense.

If there's a team that's built to give Michigan trouble, it's Iowa.  The Hawkeyes have no trouble generating offense from the perimeter, and have one of the few centers with better numbers than Dickinson.  If Garza gets his Thursday night, the basic tenet of Michigan's defensive stoutness falls, and the game turns into the sort of shooting contest the Wolverines played against Ohio State earlier this week.  Problem is, Michigan won that contest, too, with a 35% offensive rebound rate crucial to the victory.  Just getting Garza on offense probably isn't enough, unless Michigan has an uncharacteristically bad shooting night.  Iowa needs to keep Michigan off the boards, in ways that it has struggled to do with opponents inferior to the Wolverines earlier this year.  If they can somehow manage to do that, everything -- yes, everything -- is still in play.

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