No one, not even Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein, could have predicted the Wolverines would be here at this point in the season.
Let’s take a second to recap. Michigan — yes, the same team that’s limped through more than a decade of mediocrity; the same team that managed a measly 10 wins last year while losing a program-record 22 games; the same team that players and coaches called a work in progress during the preseason — is sitting in the top four of the Big Ten after yesterday morning’s 64-49 beatdown of Iowa.
After one of their best starts to conference play in recent memory, the Wolverines are being mentioned in the same breath as some of the conference big shots, like Michigan State and Wisconsin, who bested Michigan by eight points on New Year’s Eve.
And for good reason.
The victory over Iowa was the Wolverines’ (3-1 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) most complete game since conference play began, with both the offense and defense running smoothly from the opening tipoff.
After less-than-stellar defensive performances against teams like Wisconsin and Illinois, Michigan totally shut down the Iowa attack and limited the Hawkeyes to just 16 first-half points. Almost exclusively playing the Beilein-patented 1-3-1 zone, the Wolverines defense looked hungry and aggressive. It forced 12 total turnovers, including one that led to a ridiculous four-on-zero fastbreak that ended in a monster jam by sophomore leading-scorer Manny Harris.
“When (the 1-3-1 is) working, we stay with it and keep it going — we don’t want to change it,” junior DeShawn Sims said.
And it was obviously working yesterday. At no point did the Hawkeyes (1-3, 11-6) look comfortable in their offensive set, often tentatively passing the ball around the perimeter deep into the shot clock.
Where Michigan might have experimented with a man-to-man set in previous games, it stuck with the zone scheme for most of the contest.
“You don’t see it very often,” explained Beilein about his troublesome defensive scheme. “It’s hard for people to prepare for. … Sometimes. It’s not even about a schematic thing. It’s about just getting the ball in the right areas, where the ball will bounce our way.”
But Michigan needs to take this win with a grain of salt.
Iowa’s best player, senior forward Cyrus Tate, came out on the Crisler Arena court during pregame warm-ups with sweats on and a large cast on his right foot. Without Tate, the Hawkeyes were severely limited on offense.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Cyrus Tate is a huge player in the Iowa program,” Beilein said. “To get them with two days of prep time (to come up with a game plan without Tate), it is a very difficult thing to coach and to adjust to. We don’t get up and get that lead that we did when Cyrus is in. He’s a heck of a player.”
Tate, who has more than 100 points this season, has almost 40 more rebounds than anyone else on the roster and leads the team in blocked shots.
Although Michigan’s defense looked much improved, Harris stole the show. After a dismal 4-of-12 shooting performance against Indiana, “Manny Fresh” was an efficient 6-of-12, pouring in 18 points and helping out on both sides of the ball with eight rebounds and four steals.
Even though the game was against a struggling Iowa team trying to cope with their Cyrus Tate-less future, it was a big win for the Wolverines, especially with their schedule amping up in the coming weeks.
“We’re sitting right where we want to be coming into these next couple games,” freshman Zack Novak said. “We still gotta go get it done on the road now, but we’re ready for the challenge.”