The good news for the Michigan men’s basketball team is that its toughest three-game stretch of the Big Ten season is over after its game Sunday.
The bad news is that game is against the hottest team in the Big Ten — one that just knocked off No. 4 Michigan State for the second time this season — Iowa.
The Hawkeyes (5-0 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) also defeated Purdue on the road as part of their impressive start to Big Ten play, and they have benefited heavily from having the most experienced lineup in the conference, comprising four seniors and a junior.
“I tried to go through it in my head — how many seniors we’ve had in the last four years that actually played,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They have four seniors that are starting and a junior. They’ve been through, they built a program. It’s just a tremendous basketball team right now.
“If you just go all over college basketball, where are there four seniors that have all been starting for years, playing for years and have earned that?”
Those seniors are led by a dominant frontcourt made up of 6-foot-9 Wooden Award candidate Jarrod Uthoff and 7-foot-1 Adam Woodbury.
This will be third straight opponent to test the Wolverines’ post defense, after they faced Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons, and then Maryland’s Diamond Stone and Rob Carter Jr.
“They’re a very different team than Purdue,” Beilein said. “Woodbury, while not a perimeter player, is a really good passer, but not necessarily a shot-blocker. Uthoff is really a small forward, he can play anything. … He is really a talented, talented player who practiced two years before he ever got on the court.”
Junior forward Mark Donnal, who has burst onto the scene lately with 14.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in conference play, will have his hands full again in the post. And junior forward Zak Irvin, who has finally found his offensive rhythm after a 22-point performance against the Terrapins, will be tested on defense as he likely will be matched up with Uthoff.
But surprisingly, neither of those two players leads Michigan (3-1, 13-4) in rebounding. That distinction belongs to 6-foot-1 junior guard Derrick Walton Jr., whose outstanding jumping ability has netted him 5.5 rebounds per game and 7.5 per game in Big Ten play.
Meanwhile, the status of senior guard Caris LeVert, who hasn’t played a game in the new year after injuring his lower leg at Illinois on Dec. 30, remains up in the air. LeVert still hasn’t returned to practice, but he is being evaluated on a daily basis.
“Caris will go through a series of tests (Friday), again to see where he is,” Beilein said. “If he tests with no pain, he’ll begin the process of practicing. If he tests with pain, he’ll just be doing some things that will help his healing.”
The Wolverines proved Tuesday against Maryland that they can beat good teams without LeVert, but a road contest against Iowa could be a totally different story.
Michigan likely will have no choice but to turn to the 3-point shot as its main weapon if LeVert is still out — it took 12 of them to beat the Terrapins — but if Iowa’s 17-point rout of the Spartans in East Lansing is any indication, the Wolverines are in for a fight either way.