Entering Sunday’s game against Northwestern, the Michigan men’s basketball team sat atop the Big Ten standings as the conference’s only remaining unbeaten team.
The No. 16 Wolverines (9-0 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) stayed on top after a dominant 85-66 win over the No. 19 Wildcats (6-3, 3-2) in the first meeting between the two programs where both occupied spots in the AP Top 25.
Despite its stellar start to Big Ten play, Michigan had yet to face any of the league’s main contenders. On paper, playing a ranked Wildcats team that had already knocked off Ohio State and Michigan State appeared to be the Wolverines’ toughest test so far. In reality, it wasn’t.
Still, Northwestern came out of the gates hot. Pete Nance scored the Wildcats’ first eight points and even with Michigan’s family members allowed in the arena for the first time all season, the Wolverines looked flat, beginning the game with four empty possessions.
Gradually, Michigan found its footing — especially from deep. Led by senior guard Eli Brooks and senior wing Chaundee Brown, the Wolverines hit nine first-half 3-pointers. The play of sophomore wing Franz Wagner was the real story of the first half though.
Wagner was not only aggressive offensively, going 4-for-7 with 10 points, but was also a force on the defensive end. With Michigan up 15-10 midway through the half, Wagner had blocks on two consecutive Northwestern possessions — including a forceful rejection on big man Ryan Young at the rim. He finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks.
“(Wagner) was really active,” Brooks said. “He’s becoming more and more of a complete defender. That showed today. Just relying on being the most physical team out there, sticking to our principles and making them score for us was big today.”
The slow start turned to a distant memory as the barrage of 3-pointers and a number of defensive stops gave the Wolverines a 14-point advantage after 20 minutes.
If Michigan proved anything in the second half, it was how many weapons it holds. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson scored 11 of his 19 points by the first timeout of the half. Senior wing Isaiah Livers then got in on the action, hitting a running layup, a 3-pointer in transition and a tough turnaround jump shot along the baseline.
“Everybodys’ really confident in what they’re asked to do and we’re a selfless team,” Brooks said. “It’s hard to guard the first action, let alone the second action. To have (Livers) and (Wagner) over there and to have to deal with shooters on the weak side, it’s hard to guard for anybody, so I think that’s what makes us elite.”
The Wolverines’ defense picked up right where it left off, too. Michigan finished with nine blocks and held the Wildcats to 41.3% shooting.
“They have a roster full of excellent 3-point shooters,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Our job was to make sure we did not lose them, keep our head on a swivel. Contest, contest without fouling and most importantly have better activity on and off the ball. … This was an inspiring game to watch on how we guarded the 3-point line.”
How the Wolverines fare against the truly elite teams in the Big Ten remains to be seen, but Sunday night was just another example of an offense that is firing on all cylinders. For the eighth time in nine games, Michigan scored over 80 points and, even more impressive, no player scored more than 19 on their own. If their effort defensively continues to improve, the Wolverines are a force to be reckoned with in the conference and beyond.
“I feel like they don’t give us a lot of respect, still,” Brown said. “They’re still talking about other teams in our conference that think they’re better than us.
“We’re just gonna continue to stay dialed in, locked in and continue to play our game. We know that we still have more work to do. We’re not satisfied with 9-0.”
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