MADISON — Shutdowns in college basketball may be a temporary phenomenon, but enough of them have happened by now for an expectation to form. Teams come out lacking offensive sharpness. Their shooting touch is gone. Defensively, they miss assignments. After all, no one has ever prescribed sitting locked in an apartment for 14 days as an effective midseason practice strategy.
And for the opening 20 minutes Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center, Michigan was no exception. In the first half, the Wolverines shot an anemic 34.4% from the field. Their offensive strategy seemed to consist of passing the ball around for 20 seconds and then letting someone play hero ball. Only senior forward Isaiah Livers was remotely effective in the role. On defense, they made Wisconsin look like the antithesis of the team that lost, 77-54, in Ann Arbor a month ago.
To put it simply, Michigan looked pretty normal. Losing on the road to a top-25 team after not playing a game in 23 days isn’t a crime. Clemson — an excellent, 13-5 team — lost its first three games after its COVID-19 outbreak by an average of 24 points. 12-4 Oregon lost its first two games back to a pair of teams that rank outside of the top 100 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric.
But this Michigan team isn’t normal. It’s a national championship contender. Anything less than a Final Four appearance would be a disappointment. That’s the statement the Wolverines made Sunday afternoon.
“I’m grateful, I’m blessed to be on a team like this,” Livers said. “Coach (Juwan) Howard kinda touched on it, he talked about how it’s just special to have guys who go on a pause and then come back, go on the road to Wisconsin, who’s playing great right now, and just be locked in and be together. I think we’re the most connected team.”
A month ago, it was Livers who called this iteration of Michigan his “favorite” that he’s been a part of. Livers, if you’ve lost track, was on the team that finished as national runner-up in 2018. A year later, he and the Wolverines started 17-0 — the best mark in program history.
So when Livers, of all people, says this team is special, you listen.
You listen and then you watch. You watch them outscore Wisconsin by 20 in the second half. You watch them identify their issues in the space of a 15-minute halftime break and come out an entirely different team. You watch them in a situation they’ve seldom been in — tied with five minutes to go — and handle it like it’s a weekly occurrence.
Through it all, you realize you’re watching a team answer the one question it hadn’t been asked: How well does it handle adversity?
“Winning a game like this on the road does a lot,” Howard said. “It says a lot about the character of this group.”
More importantly, it says a lot about its March credentials. From here on out, adversity is inescapable. On the schedule in the last five games of the season are No. 4 Ohio State and No. 15 Iowa. Last week’s cancellation against No. 6 Illinois will likely be rescheduled, too. All three are in the KenPom top 10.
After that comes the small matter of the NCAA Tournament. Only one team in the past decade has won a national championship without a single-digit scare in the dance.
On Sunday, Michigan proved that such nerve-wracking games won’t phase it.
“I think this was a great experience for us,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said. “We haven’t had too many close games, usually they’re 10 points or more. I think this will be really beneficial to us at the postseason when the games are not as separated in points.”
So no, Michigan still hasn’t played a top-10 adjusted efficiency team. And yes, its three biggest challenges of the regular season may lie ahead.
But what it has done is overcome a situation it hadn’t faced all season. And that’s enough to call these Wolverines national championship contenders.
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