For even the top teams in the conference, this year’s Big Ten is an absolute grind. No team is without blemish, and come March there should be at least 10 teams that find themselves in the Tournament hunt. While losses are not the end of the world, with so many teams looking good, it is easy to slip down to the bottom of the standings.
The Michigan Wolverines currently sit 2-3 in conference play with no reprieve on the horizon. Road games have been astronomically difficult this year across the Big Ten, but a loss on Friday night against the Iowa Hawkeyes would be less than ideal. The odds are not in their favor, however.
These two teams faced off at the beginning of conference play in December in a blistering affair. While the Wolverines came out ahead by putting up 103 points, the defense still allowed 1.23 points per possession and benefited from a cold night from the Hawkeyes behind the arc. That level of defense is unlikely to hold up in Iowa City.
Without Isaiah Livers, this Michigan team will struggle. Iowa sits No. 16 in Kenpom, five spots higher than the Wolverines, with the fourth-best offense. Neither of Michigan’s conference road losses were egregious, but both times the game just slipped out of hand. Friday night is a chance for a big statement if the Wolverines can find a way to eke one out.
What to watch
Stop Garza: The only real takeaway from the first matchup was the explosion of Luka Garza, who put up 44 points on 32 shots. At the time, it looked like a player was simply having a career night and the Wolverines chose to let him have his way while locking down everyone else. However, since then Xavier Tillman (20 points), Trevion Williams (36), and Daniel Oturu (30) have all had their way against Michigan in the paint, showing a systemic problem with the current defense. Whether it is a double team or some other change in strategy, Garza must be slowed down.
The emergence of Franz: Without Livers, Michigan really lacks the killer scoring threat that teams of past featured. Zavier Simpson is doing everything he can to keep the offense together — especially since Jon Teske has not quite made the jump that some hoped for — but he will never be able to do it all alone. Enter Franz Wagner, who looks fully comfortable in the offense following his early-season injury. With 42 points over his past three games and 9-for-21 shooting from outside, he is becoming exactly the type of weapon this team needs to keep close to good teams.
Figure out the defense: As stated above, the Hawkeyes boast one of the top offenses in the country, and while they cannot be completely stopped, Michigan needs to find a way to at least keep them in check. In Big Ten games, the Wolverines have been great at eliminating threes, ranking best in threes allowed and fifth in three-point percentage. Unfortunately, teams have chosen to instead hammer them down low, and the defense has allowed a two-point percentage of 54.3 percent which is second worst in the conference. Teske has not be as good as needed, and the backup bigs keep struggling as well. Iowa will tear Michigan apart of Juwan Howard cannot find a way to help out his players; talent alone is not getting it done.
Michigan is still struggling to put it all together, and without Livers the Hawkeyes are just too much to overcome. 77-71 Iowa.
Teams: No. 19 Michigan Wolverines (11-5, 2-3) at Iowa Hawkeyes (12-5, 3-3)
Date: Friday, January 17, 2020
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, IA
Time: 9:00 p.m. ET
Television/Streaming: FS1/Fox Sports Go