The No. 7 Michigan men’s basketball team enters Wednesday’s top-15 showdown with North Carolina ranked just four spots ahead of the Tar Heels.
How they got there couldn’t be more different.
North Carolina’s high-powered offense is averaging 96.6 points per game in its 6-1 start. The Wolverines, meanwhile, have ascended to their highest regular-season ranking in six years on the back of a defense that allows just 48.8 points per game.
One — or more likely, both — of those numbers is going to change Wednesday evening. The question for Michigan where that balance will be struck.
Because if its defense can stop the Tar Heels, it can stop anyone.
North Carolina’s offense isn’t the best in the country — it currently ranks fourth in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency, behind Nevada, Duke and Gonzaga. But as far as the Wolverines are concerned, it may as well be. The difference between the Tar Heels and the three teams ahead of them is negligible and, more importantly, they may be the team best built to overcome Michigan’s stifling defense.
As Villanova learned two weeks ago, the Wolverines’ defense makes it extremely difficult to score once an opposing offense settles into the half court. It chases shooters off the perimeter, and uses quick hands to stop guards from penetrating into the lane.
What Michigan hasn’t faced — since its 86-71 loss in Chapel Hill a year ago — is an offense that can run like North Carolina’s. Transition offense has always been a staple of Roy Williams’ offenses, but this team is unique. Of Williams’ five teams that have ranked in the top-10 in adjusted tempo, two won the national championship. This year’s version of the Tar Heels is 11th through seven games. The Wolverines have yet to face a team in the top 200.
“When they’re running, they are running downhill,” said Michigan coach John Beilein on Tuesday. “It’s like a freight train coming at you.”
Last year, against a less talented North Carolina team, the Wolverines couldn’t handle that tempo. But, as sophomore forward Isaiah Livers notes, that was just their eighth game under assistant coach and defensive specialist Luke Yaklich. Since that loss last November, Michigan has allowed more than 72 points just twice — against Purdue and Villanova, the nation’s two best teams by adjusted offensive efficiency.
“We were experimenting with a new defense,” Livers said of last year’s game. “And now, I feel like our defense is experienced enough and (has) more veterans to understand our roles.”
As good as last year’s defense was, Wednesday is the Wolverines’ opportunity to prove that this group is deserving of its billing as the nation’s best. It hasn’t allowed more than 61 points in a game and held Villanova — at Villanova — to its lowest point total in six years.
But the Wildcats are still finding themselves after losing their top three scorers from last season. The Tar Heels, at least offensively, have their identity — and it works.
Point guard Coby White looks like a star, averaging 26 points and 5.5 assists last weekend at the Las Vegas Invitational. Guard Cameron Johnson is shooting 48.5 percent from three. Forward Nassir Little, who played with Michigan freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis in a high school showcase, is projected to be a top-five NBA draft pick.
“He’s just one of those players that can do it all,” Brazdeikis said. “It’s just gonna be exciting to matchup with a guy like that.”
That’s before you get to forward Luke Maye, who was a Wooden Award finalist last year and is one of the early favorites to win it this year. Maye presents a unique problem for Michigan because of his ability to play as a stretch ‘5,’ countering the Wolverines’ small-ball lineup that features Livers at the ‘5.’
If there’s a trick to beating the Wolverines’ defense — whether that be speed, talent or style — North Carolina has it. Michigan could give up 90 points on Wednesday and still have a very good defense. But if the Wolverines are able to extend their streak of holding opponents under 62 against the Tar Heels, they’ll prove that they can stop anybody.
Just ask Beilein.
“Don’t hand national championships to anybody until you see this team tomorrow,” Beilein said, referring to North Carolina.
Then he paused.
“These two teams tomorrow.”
Mackie can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @theo_mackie.