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The last time Luka Garza visited Crisler Center, he annihilated the Michigan men’s basketball team with a dominant 44-point performance, the best of his career. 

Ahead of tomorrow’s clash with Garza and No. 9 Iowa, that memory is fresh on the Wolverines’ minds. 

“That’s a loaded question because my recollection is that we didn’t play any defense against Luka Garza,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said Wednesday. “It was, in some ways, painful. … Our approach to tomorrow night is really based on (how) our defense has got to lead to the victory.” 

The Hawkeyes boast the nation’s preeminent offense, topping KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. Garza, leading all of Division I with 24.7 points per game, propels the charge. 

Garza’s repertoire presents a match-up nightmare for opposing big men. At 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, he makes the most of his size advantage with bruising play in the post, but also stretches the floor as well as any ‘5’ in the country, shooting 44% from distance. Containing him is all but Sisyphean; only once has he scored less than 16 points in a game this season, on Feb. 13 in a 30-point victory over Michigan State. 

Such is the daunting challenge that awaits freshman center Hunter Dickinson. 

Dickinson and Garza are familiar foes. Dickinson, hailing from Alexandria, VA., and Garza, from Washington, D.C., both played for Team Takeover in the AAU circuit. Last summer, the pair trained together under the tutelage of Takeover coach Keith Stevens. 

“We were just battling, sometimes playing 1-on-1s or whatever the case may be,” Garza said Tuesday. “We definitely got some good work in against each other. … I think he definitely knows what my game is. We both know each other’s games pretty well.” 

How well that knowledge translates into on-court success remains to be seen. Defending Garza will be Dickinson’s most formidable test yet. While Dickinson’s offensive prowess has been apparent since day one, the adjustment on the defensive end has proven to be steeper, something Garza could very well take advantage of. 

On Sunday against Ohio State, Dickinson struggled with 6-foot-7 E.J. Liddell, whose inside-out playstyle drew Dickinson to the perimeter, estranged from his comfort zone. 

On the flip side, Dickinson has made strides as the season has progressed. In three games following the program’s 23-day pause, he has recorded eight blocks, a reflection of his growing comfort in mismatches and ball-screen defense.

“I think just (Michigan coach Juwan) Howard, Chris Hunter, the coaching staff, I think they really do a good job of instilling good habits in big men as a whole,” Dickinson said. “In the player development and 1-on-1s, I think we just do a really good job as a team. The teaching — coach Howard is really big on details. I really can’t get away with anything, even if we’re 5-on-5 if I make a mistake or something like that, he won’t hesitate to let me know. And so I really appreciate that.

“And, when you got three lockdown defenders, (senior guard Eli Brooks), (sophomore wing Franz Wagner), (senior forward Isaiah Livers) … it’s really easy for me seeing those guys really lock up their defenders, it really motivates me to hold my end of the bargain in terms of the big men.” 

While the Wolverines are surely banking on Dickinson to make Garza work for his points at the very least, Martelli stressed that flummoxing Iowa’s high-powered attack will be a teamwide effort. 

“Hunter has handled all of this, so all the notoriety, all the accolades, he’s handled it,” Martelli said. “And now he has to handle the idea that this is not Hunter against Garza, this is Michigan against Iowa.” 

Beyond Garza, the Hawkeyes feature an array of talented 3-point marksmen, including Joe Wieskamp, a 50% 3-point shooter, C.J. Fredrick, a 49% 3-point shooter, and Jordan Bohannon, a 38% 3-point shooter. No Big Ten team shoots 3-pointers at a higher clip or quantity than Iowa. 

“At the end of the day, they have so many actions that you have to be totally locked into because you don’t wanna give up threes,” graduate transfer guard Mike Smith said. “I think that’s how it is, that you have to be locked in fully and know where your man is, because one second he could just be sitting there and the next second he could be coming off three stagger.” 

After conceding a season-high 87 points on Sunday against the Buckeyes, Michigan’s defense certainly faces an uphill battle to get back on track. In its ongoing quest for a Big Ten title, reverting to its dominant defensive ways is paramount. 

Martelli summed the task on hand with a grin: 

“We have to take away the three while making sure that Garza doesn’t have a record that everybody in the country’s talking about on Friday morning.”

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