Six games into the season, the Michigan men’s basketball team is 6-0. The closest of those were 19-point wins against Norfolk State, Holy Cross and Providence. Its defense is the best in the country, per KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. It was ranked ninth in last week’s AP poll — ahead of any other Big Ten team — and will likely move up on Monday. And if you listen to Michigan coach John Beilein, you’d think he was unaware of any of that.
“I don’t think we’re this juggernaut,” Beilein said, after the Wolverines dispatched Tennessee-Chattanooga, 83-55, on Friday afternoon. “I think we’re OK. … We don’t have that type of experience yet to just say, ‘OK, watch out. Here comes Michigan.’ ”
Beilein’s job, of course, requires him to say things like that. And it’s true that six games in November — most of them against terrible competition — don’t make a season.
But not all of those wins are hollow. Crushing Villanova, by 27, at Villanova — that means something. So does dispatching Providence, a likely tournament team, by 19 points.
“I think we certainly got some teams that are rebuilding,” Beilein said. “Villanova, George Washington and Providence. They all lost some pretty key players — as we did.”
A month ago, it looked like this would be a rebuilding year for the Wolverines — or at least what a program that just made a national title game could classify as such. Nobody knew where the shooting would come from, how quickly the freshmen could be integrated, whether sophomores Isaiah Livers or Eli Brooks could take the next step.
The shooting hasn’t been great, but the defense is so good that it hasn’t mattered. Only one of five freshmen has played significant minutes, but that freshman, Ignas Brazdeikis, is averaging 15.7 points per game, and looks like a star. Playing Livers, a natural forward, at the ‘5’ has unlocked a new level for the Wolverines on both sides of the ball; Brooks has been more than serviceable coming off the bench.
North Carolina and Purdue, two teams in KenPom’s top-15, loom next week, and the Wolverines can reasonably expect to win both games.
None of those questions from the start of the season have been fully answered — they can’t be in six games. But if things continue this way, Michigan won’t just compete in the Big Ten, but sustain a spot in the national conversation.
The Wolverines, already, have recalibrated expectations, changing the conversation around the team. Beating the Tar Heels — who smacked them in Chapel Hill around this time last season — would be yet another signal of a shifting ceiling.
“I feel like we’re alright,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “We’re getting the shots that we practice. We can get better shots. But we also are turning down some shots. We’re not being aggressive in some areas. It’s definitely just coming for our defense, we’re getting a lot of stops. We should be running hard in transition. It’s just a lot of little things that we can still work on.”
Like Beilein, Poole is supposed to talk about improving when faced with questions about how good Michigan is. And like Beilein, there’s a kernel of truth in there. The Wolverines can get better.
That’s what makes the first six games so scary.