The Michigan men’s basketball team has found a groove.
The Wolverines (3-1 Big Ten, 14-3 overall) haven’t lost since their early-December collapse to Ohio State, racking up seven consecutive wins — including ones over Iowa and Illinois last week.
Freshman forward Isaiah Livers has gone from virtually invisible on the floor to a key spark in Michigan’s offense since the holiday break — as has sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. And with guards Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman continuing the productivity that led the Wolverines early on, the team has started to take form.
But there’s no shortage of looming danger to threaten that notion.
Michigan will face No. 5 Purdue and No. 4 Michigan State on Tuesday and Saturday this week, first at Crisler Center then in East Lansing, respectively — easily the Wolverines’ most daunting two-game stretch.
“We got quite a week (ahead),” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I really think that Michigan State and Purdue are two of the top five teams in the country. I think they can beat anyone in the country at any time on any court. We’re playing them back-to-back, and it’s really a challenge for us.
“They’d be huge for us if we can win any of these games and then continue to win.”
The Boilermakers (4-0, 15-2) have won their last 11 games, surging into top-ten spots of national polls this week with a shooting percentage and defensive efficiency that rank near the top of the conference.
Purdue is averaging a scoring output of 86 points, led by guard Carsen Edwards and center Isaac Haas, who average 16.7 and 14.7 points per game, respectively.
When asked about advice for junior center Mortiz Wagner in guarding the 7-foot-2, 290-pound Haas, Beilein had a simple answer: “Good luck.”
That’s the type of challenge the Boilermakers’ size brings. Along with 7-foot-3 freshman Matt Haarms and multi-talented forward Vincent Edwards, Purdue boasts one of the most effective frontcourts in the country.
“We’re not going to concede any baskets,” Beilein said. “(But) there are some times we’re just not gonna be able to stop it. (Haarms) is bigger than Haas — and longer. You’ve got to stay one step ahead of the passes. … They find ways to get the ball inside.”
That will certainly challenge a traditionally weaker side of Beilein-coached teams, defensive rebounding.
But this season, despite starting the comparatively undersized Wagner and fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson in the front court, that hasn’t been as much of an issue.
And against a lengthy Illinois team, the Wolverines held their own, surrendering just six second-chance points Saturday.
“We’ve had some guys become so good at boxing out, but for whatever reasons we’ve been better,” Beilein said. “We’ve had some guys stand around and could never do it. We’ve got some guys who are really good at getting in front and getting the ball.
“I particularly love the way Moe is rebounding the ball right now. He’s getting people out of his area, keeping balls alive — those are big things.”
Speaking of Wagner, the Wolverines’ leading rebounder is slowly working back to normal after a foot injury that sidelined him for two games in December. Wagner blocked three shots Saturday — again displaying the defensive improvement NBA scouts wanted to see when he returned to school for another year.
And after scoring just four points last Tuesday at Iowa, Wagner assembled a strong 14-point, seven-rebound performance against the Fighting Illini.
But achieving those sorts of numbers will be far more challenging against Purdue.
“You can’t get an easy shot (against them),” Beilein said. “They’ve got the whole package now. They’re a beautiful basketball team.”
Recently, Michigan has also looked like more of a complete package. Now, it’s time for the Wolverines to prove that against the country’s best.
“(It’s a) huge challenge,” Livers said, “I know a lot of teams lost (last week), and Purdue is moving up in the rankings. We’re just getting ready for the war.”