Just two of 351 teams in Division I basketball remain unbeaten.
One is Virginia. The other is … well, if you’re reading this column, you already know the answer.
An undefeated record at this point in the season might imply some kind of otherworldly dominance. The Michigan men’s basketball team has had that at times, but by and large, it hasn’t been the story of its season. When viewing the past 17 games together, few season-long trends emerge.
So what is the secret to the Wolverines’ success?
Answer: precisely that.
Michigan’s won games by blowing the doors off teams. It blitzed Villanova right out of the gate to a 44-17 halftime lead and beat Purdue and Indiana on the strength of a dizzying first 10 minutes. The Wolverines have won the hard way too, starting slow against Penn State and Illinois before methodically grinding them into a fine powder.
Michigan has had games over by halftime and has had to ice games at the free throw line. It’s scored over 80 points five times and under 70 five times. Right now, the only question is which equally effective Wolverine team will show up.
“We're such a day-to-day team, and I'm a day-to-day coach,” said coach John Beilein after Michigan’s latest triumph, an 80-60 beatdown of Northwestern on Sunday. “They're just so good with what they run. They run pro sets, they show you one thing, they do another thing, and they're really good defensively — they were leading the country in not giving up threes.”
The Wolverines aren’t necessarily deep — just seven players get regular minutes. But that group is as balanced — five different players have led the team in scoring — and as well-rounded as any in the country. Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews are the defensive tone-setters. Jon Teske is the low-post anchor. Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis go and get buckets. Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks bring needed versatility off the bench. It’s hard to imagine a rotation without any one of them.
“You never know who can be the leading scorer on this team,” Matthews said. “You never know who can be the leading rebounder, leader in assists. We just play to win.”
Michigan’s defense is unquestionably its backbone. The Wolverines rank in the top five in the country in steal rate, free throw rate, defensive rebounding rate and opposing 3-point percentage per KenPom. But they rank 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency as well.
Michigan has areas which can be exploited, certainly. But in the same way that not all of the Wolverines’ strengths show up at once, neither do their weaknesses.
Just look at Sunday night’s victory, in which Michigan broke a school record for most wins to start a season.
The Wolverines’ first meeting with the Wildcats was a 62-60 slugfest in Evanston. This, Michigan’s closest game of the season, was one of the few times its flaws were exposed to a degree that could cost them a victory.
Simpson, a career 30 percent 3-point shooter, was lured into putting up five from behind the arc. He missed all of them and forced Beilein to take his best defender and floor general out of the waning moments of a one-possession road game. This was Northwestern’s formula for beating the Wolverines, and it just about worked.
On Sunday, the Wildcats sagged off the junior again. Again, it was working — until it wasn’t.
With 10:56 to play in the first half, Simpson, despite a 0-for-2 start, canned a trey. Then another. And another. An off-the-dribble midrange pull-up — a shot he’s taken probably once this year, if that. Another trey. And on the next possession, a crossover and a step-back into the most unlikely of heat checks — a 3-pointer that was one of those shots you simply knew was going in.
Meanwhile, Teske’s lack of outside shooting has yet to hurt Michigan similarly, but Northwestern, seeing the 7-foot-1 center’s five threes in 22 attempts this season, made it clear it was fine with leaving him open. Teske shot that strategy down, going 3-for-4 on his way to tying a career high with 17 points — in the first half.
It’s easy to forget it now, but 3-point shooting was supposed to be one of the Wolverines’ weaknesses entering the season. Northwestern coach Chris Collins stated postgame that his team was going to live with Simpson and Teske firing from outside. What happens now that teams know it can kill them?
“Give those guys credit, they went 8-for-15 from the 3-point line,” Collins said. “When they’re shooting like that, and you add Charles and Jordan Poole and Iggy to that group, Livers and those guys off the bench, they’re going to be very difficult to beat.”
Added Beilein: “What we got to do in those situations, we got to find other people. … You take away one thing from us, our hope is that we have another answer.”
The Wolverines almost always do have an answer — and that’s what makes beating them so challenging. The blueprint for doing so, to the extent that there even is one, changes every game, and their weaknesses are mostly neutralized by their adaptability.
Want to know what that entails? Ask Collins.
“That’s why they’re 17-0.”
Shames can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames. He’ll usually follow back.