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Michigan’s win over Iowa brought a glimmer of hope

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It was almost shocking to see the Wolverines play this well.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Iowa vs Michigan David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

As of Saturday morning, the Michigan Wolverines rank sixth on Kenpom and fourth on Barttorvik. Both sites rank the offense just inside the top 20 and the defense in the top three among the whole country. Bracket Matrix has Michigan as the final two seed, a sharp improvement over preseason projections of a five or a six.

Yet the mood around this fan base has been anywhere from dejected to sour over the past month. This attitude is not completely unwarranted, and certainly something to which I have contributed as well. Despite this Michigan squad looking as good on paper as any in the past five seasons, expectations during March — a month that its head coach as become known for owning — have rapidly slipped away.

The reasons are obvious to anyone who has followed this team over the conference season. Shooting has been a trial. Depth is a huge concern. Standout defense can be broken down by a player or two with foul trouble. Lack of creativity on offense. The list goes on.

For all of these reasons and more, Friday’s win came at the best possible time and in the best possible way. Though Iowa was always going to be the underdog (despite handing Michigan a big loss earlier this season, the sixth-seeded Hawkeyes entered the conference tournament losing five of their last six), the Wolverines have not always taken care of overmatched opponents like they did in the quarterfinals.

This complete display against the Hawkeyes showed why the Wolverines still have the potential to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, despite the classic Michigan Pessimism circling Twitter. Three quick thoughts as to why:

  • Inferior teams will struggle to break down this defense. Yes, Michigan has not been perfect defensively this season, but the advanced metrics prove that more often than not, the Wolverines come out ahead on this end of the floor. Iowa became the latest team to suffer one of its worst offensive performances of the season when facing Michigan (0.78 PPP), and very little was working all night. The addition of Charles Matthews back into the lineup gives the Wolverines the ability to lock down an opponent almost across the board. Lower seeds are going to have a difficult time scoring against the Maize and Blue, giving the Michigan offense a little cushion.
  • Friday featured about as balanced of an offense as possible. Five players scored between 10 and 15 points, and everyone was contributing via their strengths: Jordan Poole hit 50 percent of his threes for just the second time in nine games, Jon Teske was a perfect 5-for-5 inside the arc, Ignas Brazdeikis led the team in usage rate and did a little bit of everything, and Isaiah Livers reverted to the essential role of versatile sixth man. Matthews struggled in his first game back, but his aforementioned defense was absolutely impactful. Do not expect 10 made threes per game, but the fact that everyone was chipping in makes it a little more sustainable going forward.
  • As good as all of the players listed above looked on Friday were, it all comes down to Zavier Simpson. As a point guard under head coach John Beilein and a leader of a top-20 offense, it could be surprising to see a scoring average of just 9.1 points per game. Michigan fans know, however, that Simpson’s value goes far beyond putting the ball through the hoop, as exciting as his hook shots may be. Simpson’s 11 assists on Friday marked his fourth time with double-digit dimes in his last six games. His defensive efforts are second-to-none, but it is his ability to create offense for his teammates that the rest of the offense lacks. Scoring may be a challenge at stretches for this team going forward, but Simpson is the perfect leader for this Michigan squad. Without him, neither end of the floor is going to work.