Luka Garza sat on the sidelines, shoulders slumped and head bowed, watching along as Iowa trudged on toward a loss that had long been inevitable. One moment, Garza picked his head up and gazed longingly at the scoreboard, squinting to see that his team trailed by 22, and stared back down at the hardwood.
This is what it’s like to play Michigan.
Garza, the odds-on favorite to be crowned as the National Player of the Year come April, looked pedestrian. Iowa, boasting the nation’s top-ranked offense, managed a season-low 57 points. A game billed as a top-10 matchup was all but over midway through the second half.
So what happened?
“Our defense was really good in the first half,” Garza said, shaking his head and thumbing his fingers through his hair. “Then it kinda fell apart.”
For 23 minutes, the Hawkeyes were squarely in the game. With 17:30 minutes left to play in the second half, Garza completed a 3-point play to give Iowa the lead. In the process, he sent Michigan freshman center Hunter Dickinson to the bench with three fouls. A window had opened.
Then the Wolverines slammed it shut. Twelve minutes later, the Hawkeyes were buried in an 18-point deficit, on the wrong side of a 34-14 run. With Dickinson on the bench, the margin was 12-3 in Michigan’s favor.
At this point, watching Michigan continuously drub its competition, it’s hard not to get a sense of déjà vu. No longer is it a surprise to see the Wolverines empty their bench at the end of a game. Only once in the past two-and-a-half months have they had a game come down to the wire — a 5-point victory Sunday against No. 4 Ohio State. Even then, Michigan had opened up an 8-point lead with 56 seconds to play.
In a Big Ten conference widely regarded as the nation’s best, the Wolverines are pulverizing their opponents, creating a chasm between themselves and the rest of the pack. Iowa was simply next in line.
“We played really really bad,” Garza said. “Even me, I played horrible in the first half and we were only down three.”
That’s the scary part. Thursday night, Michigan hardly flashed its full potential for 40 minutes. The Wolverines slogged through the first half, committing six turnovers and shooting 40% from the field. A rotation of big men — fifth-year senior Austin Davis, junior Brandon Johns Jr. and freshman Terrance Williams — struggled in Dickinson’s absence in the opening half.
And yet, Iowa trailed at the half.
“I thought they were any other Big Ten team, being physical and aggressive,” Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon said. Ten minutes earlier, Bohannon sat on the bench, a Gatorade towel draped over his head.
Game in and game out, Michigan has proven itself to be anything but just another Big Ten team. The 23-day layoff threatened to derail its season; instead, the Wolverines have returned even stronger. Their four wins have come against teams ranked among the top-26 in the nation, per KenPom.
Only three teams are ranked in the top-10 in both KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency: undefeated Gonzaga, undefeated Baylor and one-loss Michigan. For weeks, the narrative has grouped Gonzaga and Baylor together as 1a and 1b. It might be time to label Michigan as the 1c.
After the game, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery spoke volumes without saying much of anything at all.
The Hawkeyes mustered a season-low 57 points, stifled by Michigan’s defense. When asked what led to the offensive dysfunction?
“It wasn’t dysfunction,” McCaffery deadpanned, staring daggers into the oblivion.
In slowing down Iowa’s high-octane offense, what did Michigan manage to do differently from other teams?
“That question has already been answered.”
What was impressive about sophomore wing Franz Wagner, who slashed Iowa to death with a series of runners and floaters, accounting for a game-high 21 points?
“He was driving the ball quite a bit.”
It’s feasible that McCaffery, notoriously terse, had little interest in answering questions. But perhaps that’s the point.
This is what Michigan does.
Is there really anything left to say?