Without Caris LeVert for the fourth straight game, Michigan fell short in its bid to land another signature victory, losing to #16 Iowa, 82-71, on Sunday. My five takeaways:
1. Iowa is the Big Ten's best team, and it's not that close.
Entering the season, the presumed favorites to win the Big Ten championship were Maryland and Michigan State, with Indiana, Michigan, Purdue, and Wisconsin jostling for position in the tier below them. I had Iowa in the Badgers' spot, thinking that the Hawkeyes' experience would carry them further as the Badgers tried to replace two first-round picks and three other significant contributors. Either way, though, no one thought that Iowa would be the cream of the crop in the Big Ten, not even in late December.
Three weeks later, Iowa is the Big Ten's best team, and it's not that close. No team has had a more difficult five-game stretch to open the Big Ten season. Iowa had to face Michigan State twice, travel to West Lafayette, and host Nebraska and Michigan. Most Hawkeye fans would have been pleased if Iowa went 3-2 during this stretch. Instead, not only is Iowa 5-0, the Hawkeyes won four of the five games by double digits and all five by at least seven points. Accordingly, Iowa has shot up from #17 in KenPom's rankings at the start of the Big Ten season all the way to #4. Yes, #4. KenPom now considers them a top-five team and projects the Hawkeyes will go 15-3 and win the Big Ten by two games.
And that was apparent on Sunday. Offensively, Iowa was a force to be reckoned with. Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons ran the offense beautifully as they combined for 13 assists and two turnovers. They routinely got the ball into the hands of their bevy of 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-9 wings and forwards, all of whom can score inside and outside the three-point line, and those Hawkeyes took advantage as Jarrod Uthoff, Peter Jok, Dom Uhl, and Nicholas Baer combined for 56 points on 21-of-42 (9-of-16 3P) shooting. Iowa also did a nice job of finding 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury, who scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, underneath when Michigan lost him while trying to defend the pick and roll. And, defensively, Iowa's length and aggressiveness on the perimeter bothered Michigan's three-point shooters and generated 13 turnovers. This isn't to say that Iowa doesn't have flaws, but the Hawkeyes are not a team that will make many mistakes.
With the confidence Iowa has now, opponents need to be near-perfect to beat them.
2. Michigan wasn't near-perfect, but it made Iowa earn that win.
This wasn't a game that Michigan was expected to win. The Wolverines were without their star player against the Big Ten's best team in a sold-out building that had not treated them kindly in recent seasons. There were concerns among Michigan fans that this game could get ugly quickly and, in turn, damage the psyche of the Wolverines despite their win over #3 Maryland earlier in the week. And, in the opening minutes, it appeared that was going to be the case. Iowa raced out of the gates on fire, knocking down its first four shots, three of which were either fadeaways or step-backs, and scored the game's first 11 points. Michigan looked like it was about to get run out of the gym.
However, Michigan settled down. The Wolverines constructed a 13-0 run in the first half and an 11-2 run early in the second frame to take the lead both times. They did this by making a string of shots. In the first half, Michigan reacted to Iowa's aggressive perimeter defense by slicing through the interior with dribble penetration and backdoor cuts for layups. As a result, Michigan had 13 shots at the rim to just nine three-point tries by halftime. In the second half, Iowa adjusted by mixing in more zone, and Michigan countered by heating up from behind the arc. From the start of the first run to the end of the second run, Michigan made 16-of-22 shots and kept the pressure on Iowa.
And, with 2:56 left, Michigan trailed Iowa by only five points. The Wolverines were right on the Hawkeyes' heels, and, if Iowa wanted to win, it would have to earn it. And that's what Iowa did. Peter Jok drained a momentous three, and Jarrod Uthoff followed with a jumper of his own. That pushed Iowa's lead to 10 with little time left, and that was that.
People don't like the term "moral victory," but that is what this was for Michigan. This was an inspiring effort as Michigan put itself in position to steal a win on the road from the Big Ten's best team. Michigan didn't quit. Michigan didn't roll over. Michigan didn't get smacked around like Michigan State did in East Lansing earlier in the week. Instead, Michigan hung in there until the final buzzer. And, after how Michigan performed against Purdue in West Lafayette and Maryland at home, it's hard to deny that this team is improving. The Wolverines are 3-2 against what KenPom considers to be the second-toughest opening Big Ten stretch. Imagine what'll happen once Caris LeVert returns.
3. Turnovers were Michigan's cause of death on Sunday.
As I said above, Michigan wasn't near-perfect against Iowa, and turnovers were the main reason why. Both the Wolverines and Hawkeyes are ranked in the top 15 nationally in offensive turnover rate, while neither team's defense forces lots of turnovers. If the season averages played out, turnovers would have had little impact on this game. However, Iowa turned the ball over only four times (6.3 TO%), while Michigan gave it up a whopping 13 times (20.5 TO%). This wasn't the sloppiest that Michigan has been with the ball this season (21.3 TO% at Illinois), but this was the worst turnover margin by far. Thus, Iowa fired seven more shots despite that Michigan was better on the glass in a game where both teams were shooting the lights out. If Michigan had made smarter passes and taken care of the basketball, this could have been more than a "moral" victory.
4. Michigan's defense contributed to that death, too.
The turnovers were bad, but Michigan still posted 1.119 points per possession against Iowa, which was the second-best output an opponent has had against the Hawkeyes. Only Dayton has had more offensive success (1.124 PPP). So the turnovers weren't Michigan's only problem. Yet again, Michigan's defensive woes made a grand appearance. The Hawkeyes scored 82 points in a 63-possession game, averaging 1.293 points per possession -- their third-best rate of the season. Iowa deserves a huge chunk of credit for this. Not only did the Hawkeyes hold onto the basketball, they made a large share of their jumpers, many of which all Michigan could do was shrug in response.
However, Iowa had its fair share of wide-open looks, too. I've written often about how certain teams can bully Michigan on the block, but I'm beginning to think that Michigan's biggest issue is on the perimeter and guarding the pick and roll. Too many times did Iowa have open looks on the perimeter because Michigan's defenders weren't able to fight through screens or lost sight of their man off the ball. Too many times did Michigan double or hedge too hard on the ball-handler on the pick and roll without recovering in time or helping in the paint. This led to numerous layups and close-range jumpers for the Hawkeyes and allowed Iowa to cling onto its lead as Michigan poured in shot after shot.
After the game, Michigan's offense rose a few spots to 12th in adjusted efficiency, while its defense plummeted from 106th to 132nd. At this point, there should be no questions about Michigan's offense on a regular basis. The biggest area for concern is the defense.
5. Three-game gauntlet is over. Time to take the easy ones.
The goal of Michigan's most recent three-game stretch against three ranked teams in Purdue, Maryland, and Iowa, two of which were on the road, was to attain one win. Two wins would have been sweet, but Michigan needed at least one to earn a signature victory that'd look nice atop its resume. And Michigan did just that with its win over Maryland.
But now Michigan enters the next phase of its Big Ten schedule. The Wolverines' next four games are at home against Minnesota, at Nebraska, at home against Rutgers, and against Penn State in Madison Square Garden. The combined Big Ten record of those four teams is 5-18, and none of them are ranked higher than 89th on KenPom (Nebraska). This will be the easiest stretch of Big Ten games that Michigan will have by far as KenPom gives the Wolverines at least a 74-percent chance to win in three of them. The only one in which Michigan has lesser odds is at Nebraska, which could be a tricky game and one where Michigan would like to have Caris LeVert back, but U-M still is favored.
Nonetheless, there will be no such thing as moral victories in any of these games. If Michigan wants to be an NCAA Tournament team and not flirt with the bubble come mid-March, it must win all four of these games. So this isn't the time for any letdowns.