Winning a Big Ten regular season outright championship is a huge deal, regardless of season (in fact, only seven of the past 10 seasons even had an outright champ). Add in a second-year head coach, a bunch of new faces playing key roles, and, oh right, an ongoing pandemic, and Michigan’s performance this season looks even more incredible.
The Wolverines locked up the Big Ten regular season title on Thursday, but the season is far from over. A rivalry rematch on Sunday, the conference tournament (with maybe a third game against the Spartans), and then a potential NCAA Tournament run still lie ahead, meaning the story is far from over. However, it is not too soon to start comparing this team to champions of past Big Tens.
Big Ten Champions
|2011-12||Ohio State*||Final 4||2||72.2%|
|2018-19||Mich State*||Final 4||2||80.0%|
The Big Ten is historically tough this season, but that does not mean that the past decade has been that much easier. The average champion has won over 80 percent of its conference games while usually making it to at least the Sweet 16. The Wolverines will be the fourth No. 1 seed conference champion over the past 11 seasons and will look to be the fourth to travel to the Final Four.
Three different times has a conference champion recorded a .889 winning percentage, which is extremely impressive in the Big Ten. A Michigan sweep over the Spartans would yield a .882 winning percentage, just off this mark. Had the three games not be canceled due to Covid, it is very possible the Wolverines would have reached .900.
Big Ten Champions (Kenpom)
Win-loss records are important, but when it comes to determining how good a team truly is there is no better place to go than Kenpom. Big Ten champions have traditionally been pretty strong in the advanced metrics space, with an average adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM) of 27.64; for reference, that would be right in the middle of the top 10 this season.
Take a second to look at the very best teams in the conference over the past decade. 2014-15 Wisconsin had a 33.72 AdjEM and a 129.0 offensive efficiency rating (AdjO), while 2011-12 Ohio State boasted a 88.1 defensive efficiency rating (AdjD). Currently, Michigan sits at 86.9 AdjD and 32.66 AdjEM (and these numbers could still get better), meaning this is simply one of the conference’s best squads in recent memory.
Michigan Kenpom Rankings
|Season||Outcome||O Rank||D Rank|
|Season||Outcome||O Rank||D Rank|
One last table. Maybe you are skeptical of comparing Michigan to past Big Ten champions, because although this team might be the best league winner in a long time, none of those teams were able to find the ultimate success in March (April). The table above should provide a little more confidence.
The past decade has been an amazing progression for Michigan under John Beilein, and now Juwan Howard. There have been some simply incredible teams, with five (!!) of the past 10 ending with either a top-five Kenpom offense or a top-five Kenpom defense.
The 2012-13 team produced one of my favorite sports seasons ever, riding the No. 1 offense in the country to the title game. The 2013-14 group followed this up with the No. 3 offense and a dominant Big Ten championship. The 2016-17 squad ended up with the No. 4 offense and won the Big Ten Tournament following the plane crash.
All of these teams were lights-out on offense, but questionable on defense, which ultimately cost them. This caused Beilein to do something that seemed impossible: develop an elite defense. Both the 2017-18 (national finalists) and 2018-19 teams were decent on offense, but top-three on defense, a type of turnaround that is unheard of, especially for an offensive wizard like Beilein. Defense can win championships, but the offense struggled a bit too much to win it all.
That brings us to the 2020-21 team. Last season was Howard’s first, and while neither unit struggled, Michigan was not elite on either end of the court. The same cannot be said about this season. The Wolverines are going to end up with a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, and both units may very well end up within the top five. This is completely new territory for Michigan, but a near staple of every past NCAA champion.
So do not overlook what the Wolverines have done this season. Performances like these do not occur often, even by the champions of one of the country’s top conferences, and numbers like these have not been seen in Ann Arbor ever in the Kenpom era. Michigan is elite and absolutely can win it all. Even if it falls short, this will go down as one of the most impressive teams ever in the Big Ten.