As the modern style of men’s basketball continues to evolve with an emphasis on 3-point shooting, teams across the collegiate and professional ranks have ditched the traditional ‘5.’
But not in the Big Ten, and not in Ann Arbor.
In a conference ruled by some of the country’s most talented big men, traditional centers are alive and well. The short list of testaments includes Michigan’s Jon Teske, Iowa’s Luka Garza, Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, Purdue’s Matt Haarms, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu and Penn State’s Mike Watkins.
In Friday night’s 103-91 win over the Hawkeyes, the fourth-ranked Wolverines saw the impact of a dominant Big Ten center firsthand. Garza entered the game as the nation’s only Power Five player averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds, and promptly poured in a career-high 44 points against Michigan.
Garza showcased one of the conference’s best low-post repertoires Friday night, using his full arsenal of reverse layups, post hooks and mid-range jumpers to record the third-most points in Iowa history.
“He’s a guy that’s got a ton of different moves,” said Hawkeyes’ coach Fran McCaffery after the game. “I thought we did a really good collectively of getting him the ball, (we) made a concerted effort to do so. He never stops moving, he sprints hard in transition and posts hard, so he’s a handful for any defender that’s trying to guard him.”
Throughout the night, the Wolverines had no answer for Garza. Michigan coach Juwan Howard initially tried stopping him by assigning three different defenders, but when Teske, sophomore forward Colin Castleton and senior center Austin Davis tried their hand at halting Garza’s big night, they found themselves out-muscled or in foul trouble. Castleton, in particular, took an errant elbow to the face that required stitches on his lip before he made a second-half return.
By halftime, Garza had already racked up 27 points. He was responsible for 11 of Iowa’s 15 field goals, while 24 of its 38 points came in the paint. Howard tried to draw up different defensive assignments, traps and double-teams against Garza, but none of it seemed to matter.
“We were just trying to make it tough on (Garza),” Davis said. “Tough to get the ball, tough once he got it, just tried to make it as hard on him to score as possible. … We know he’s a great player, we knew that coming in.”
Friday could very well have been an outlier. Regardless of whether it was, Michigan is in a good place to learn from it. The Wolverines’ porous interior defense allowed Iowa to post 91 points, even as it shot just 3-of-15 from beyond the arc. With an influx of frontcourt depth this season, it’s best to learn such a lesson in December as opposed to March.
At 7-foot-1, Teske has been an impactful paint presence since stepping into the starting center role last season. He’s averaging 2.1 blocks per game across 46 starts, while Castleton is averaging just over two rejections per 36 minutes in his career to date.
But their real value lies in altering close-range looks with their size. Against driving guards and fellow centers around the rim, the presence of Teske or Castleton often forces opposing players to take off-balanced shots from uncomfortable angles.
Without a reliable backup center last season, there was pressure on Teske to remain on the floor. That wasn’t the case the season before, when he averaged just 12.3 minutes while playing behind Moritz Wagner. Teske’s minutes more than doubled following Wagner’s departure, which brought about a necessary learning curve in staying out of foul trouble.
He answered the call, improving from one foul per 7.6 minutes to 12.6 minutes, but Michigan still struggled without him on the floor. After beginning the season as the primary backup center, Davis fell out of the rotation as Castleton and forward Brandon Johns Jr. spent much of their freshman seasons adjusting to the college level.
This season, though, Michigan is better equipped to weather stretches without Teske than it was a season ago. And as a result, he and the centers behind him are afforded the luxury of defensive aggression.
With a long line of strong Big Ten centers on the upcoming docket, that aggression has to become a staple of the Wolverines’ interior defense. Otherwise, Garza’s performance could be just the beginning.