Nineteen total wins. A 14-3 conference record en route to its first Big Ten regular-season title since 2014. Victories over three top-10 opponents. Three All-Big Ten Team nominees in sophomore wing Franz Wagner, senior forward Isaiah Livers and freshman center Hunter Dickinson, who also won the conference’s Freshman of the Year award. The Big Ten’s Coach of the Year in Juwan Howard.
This was the 2020-21 regular season for the Michigan men’s basketball team.
And none of it matters now.
This is March, after all. From here on out, who a team beats or loses carries little meaning when it comes to seeding. Win and move on, lose and go home. It’s that simple. With teams all across the country battling for supremacy and bids to the Big Dance in Indianapolis, the Big Ten Tournament will be one of the most interesting events of the weekend. How far will Michigan go? The Michigan Daily’s men’s basketball beat sat down to make picks.
Who is Michigan’s x-factor?
Teddy Gutkin: When you talk about x-factors, you have to talk about graduate guard Mike Smith. If Michigan’s offense is the hottest club in town, Smith is the DJ; it simply doesn’t work without him. Smith, who led the Big Ten Conference with 5.2 assists per game this season, has completely reinvented his game, transitioning from a 22.6 point per game scorer at Columbia to being the conductor of a dangerous Michigan offense. Smith has proven time and time again that he’s capable of scoring when needed, averaging 8.7 points per game and hitting some big shots down the stretch in wins over Wisconsin and Ohio State. As one of the conference’s top passers and a threat to score the ball at all levels, Smith could be the key to Michigan being the last team standing on Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis.
Jared Greenspan: To me, sophomore wing Franz Wagner holds the keys to a Michigan run. Wagner’s status remains somewhat of a question mark — he hobbled off in the final seconds of Sunday’s loss, and Michigan coach Juwan Howard has remained coy ever since. Should Wagner be healthy, though, he will be expected to carry the freight. Of late, Wagner has been enigmatic, coupling stellar performances with head-scratching struggles for a player of his caliber. He looked unstoppable against the likes of Iowa and Indiana, only to be completely stifled against an aggressive Illinois defense. In Michigan’s three losses, Wagner is shooting just 8-of-30 from the field, contributing a meek 20 points. That won’t get the job done. For the Wolverines to fulfill their March aspirations, Wagner will need to provide consistent offensive production.
Connor Brennan: Given recent events — namely Eli Brooks’s ankle injury on Sunday — I think Chaundee Brown is the Wolverines’ x-factor going forward. In Brooks’s absence, Brown will now be thrust into the starting lineup. Fortunately for Michigan, as a three-year starter at Wake Forest, he has experience against top-level competition. As the Wolverines’ sixth-man this season, Brown is averaging 7.8 points per game on 47% shooting from the field and 38.7% from the 3-point range. While he’s not quite the lockdown defender Brooks is, at 6-foot-5, he’s a strong, versatile player who can hold his own against talented guards and wings. The area of his game that differs the most from Brooks is his playmaking ability. In a fully-manned Michigan offense, Brown is usually the recipient of his teammates’ assists rather than the one dishing them out. Brooks, meanwhile, has shown an ability to initiate the offense when needed. Brooks is the glue that holds this team together. Brown needs to be the glue that holds it together until the former can return to action.
How far does Michigan go?
Teddy: If Michigan has senior guard Eli Brooks healthy and in the lineup, the Wolverines are right there with Illinois as the clear-cut frontrunners to win the Big Ten Tournament. Unfortunately for Juwan Howard’s crew, it’s looking more and more likely that Brooks will not participate due to the left ankle injury he sustained on Sunday. The Wolverines still have their key contributors locked and ready to go in Wagner, Smith, senior forward Isaiah Livers and freshman center Hunter Dickinson, but the loss of Brooks leaves a gaping hole. His teammates have frequently commented on him being the team’s heart and soul, and his absence has been felt in two losses to Minnesota and the Spartans. Michigan still absolutely has the talent to win it all this weekend, and I think it will be able to knock off either Michigan State or Maryland in the quarterfinals and either Ohio State or Purdue in the semifinals to set up a highly-anticipated rematch with the Illini.
Jared: Despite a sluggish performance against Michigan State on Sunday, the Wolverines should win their opening game, even without Brooks. From there on, things get tricky. Though Brooks’s calling card is his defense, Michigan’s offense has struggled to find its footing in his absence, lacking continuity and spacing. The Wolverines could potentially run into Ohio State in their second game, and keeping pace with the Buckeyes’ high-powered attack would be all the more difficult without Brooks. Brooks also sees 31 minutes of court time per game, adding a burden on the rest of the team. Without Brooks, I see the Wolverines falling in the semifinals. With Brooks, I’ll peg them to drop the championship match against Illinois.
Connor: I’m fairly confident Michigan will be playing on Saturday afternoon, but beyond that, it could get dicey. I think a lot depends on who they’ll be facing in the semifinals. If Michigan has to go up against Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell, and more importantly, veteran guards Duane Washington Jr. and C.J. Walker, it could struggle to match the Buckeyes’ offensive output in Brooks’ absence. Alternatively, should the Wolverines have to battle 4-seed Purdue, they should be able to endure a slugfest and advance to the championship game.
Who wins the Big Ten Tournament?
Teddy: Illinois. Featuring a star-studded cast led by National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu and 7-foot Kofi Cockburn, the Illini are filled to the brim with lights-out shooters in Trent Frazier and Adam Miller and average 80.3 points per night. Illinois’s defense has proven to be a steady unit as well, allowing 68.5 points per contest, and Cockburn remains one of the toughest interior defenders in the country with an average of 1.3 blocks per game. No matter what the Illini may say, the Wolverines have won the outright Big Ten regular-season title. Illinois’s best response? Win the Big Ten Tournament.
Jared: Illinois and a healthy Michigan are undoubtedly the two front-runners. But let’s not be boring. I could see Ohio State catch fire and rack off a series of upsets. The Buckeyes enter the Tournament scuffling, losers of four straight. Their path to the championship, though, becomes less arduous should Michigan be without Brooks. Ohio State’s offense, fourth in the nation per KenPom, can certainly go toe-to-toe with Illinois or Iowa in a potential championship game. A few clutch baskets by Duane Washington Jr. and a stellar game out of E.J. Liddell could propel the Buckeyes to the top.
Connor: Au contraire, my friends. Allow me to also play devil’s advocate. While it goes almost entirely against my better judgment, I’m picking Michigan to win the Big Ten Tournament. Yes, two of the Wolverines’ three losses have come without Brooks — Jan. 16 against Minnesota and last Sunday against the Spartans — but in both games, they were forced to adapt on the fly. Obviously, injuries never come with an advanced warning, but with a full week of practice to adjust to life without him, I think Michigan will ultimately find a way to get by. The Wolverines’ depth will be tested and the likes of graduate guard Mike Smith, Brown and freshman guard Zeb Jackson will have to shoulder greater responsibility, but the Wolverines have looked dominant at times this season and it’s hard to believe that killer instinct and determination can just disappear entirely. Michigan beats Illinois in what could easily be defined as an upset.