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Michigan’s defense welcomes challenge of Garza, Iowa’s top-ranked offense

Iowa leads the Big Ten in 3-point shooting percentage and attempts.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If you watched either of the two meetings between the Michigan men’s basketball team and Iowa last season, you might have mistaken the basketball game for a track meet.

Both matchups were offensive onslaughts. The Wolverines weathered a 44-point effort from Iowa’s Luka Garza in December to secure the first meeting, 103-91, before falling in a 90-83 road loss in January. On Wednesday, Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli didn’t mince words when a reporter asked about his team’s two defensive efforts against the Hawkeyes last season.

“My recollection is that we didn’t play any defense against Luka Garza,” Martelli said during a Zoom call. “He had about 90 combined in the two games and it was, in some ways, it was painful.”

There were a combined 33 3-pointers between the two games, and Garza poured in 77 total points. Thursday could follow a similar script when No. 3 Michigan welcomes the ninth-ranked Hawkeyes to Ann Arbor. Iowa enters the matchup with KenPom’s top-rated offense, with the Wolverines just five spots below.

But what separates the two teams is their performance at the other end of the floor. Michigan’s defense checks in at No. 11 nationally on KenPom, while Iowa isn’t even ranked in the top 70. That’s what the Wolverines are going to lean on as they look for their sixth straight win.

“Our approach tomorrow night is really based on, our defense has got to lead to the victory,” Martelli said.

That’s easier said than done. So far this season, the Hawkeyes are averaging a conference-best 86.4 points per game. They’re the only team in the Big Ten shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc, and they’ve taken more 3-point attempts (580 across 23 games) than any other team in the conference.

“Their 3-point weapons are extraordinary,” Martelli said. “If you look at their last five games, a kid like (Joe) Wieskamp is shooting 59 percent. … Connor McCaffery’s shooting 60 percent, and he’s the guy who ‘can’t shoot’ on their team. The kid Keegan Murray off the bench is shooting 71 percent in their last five games from three.”

Defending Iowa around the rim is even tougher. Garza has emerged as the National Player of the Year frontrunner, averaging 24.7 points on 56 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds. He’s also attempted 164 free throws this year — the second-most in the Big Ten.

Michigan’s efforts to stop the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year start with freshman center Hunter Dickinson. Growing up, the two of them played for the same Team Takeover AAU program and became friends when Dickinson began practicing with Garza’s under-17 team as an eighth-grader. Garza is known for his physical low-post game, but at 7-foot-1, Dickinson will have a two-inch height advantage on the block. The two worked out together last spring, so it won’t be the first time they match up since Garza’s high school days.

“Something that (Garza) does really well is to use his body,” Dickinson said Wednesday. “He’s got a big frame that he throws around really well. He’s really good at using angles if you give him any type of angle to get it off the backboard or something like that, he’s really good at ‘whatever the defender does is wrong’ type mentality.”

A year after giving up 181 points in two games against Iowa, the Wolverines’ defense could be the difference-maker on Thursday. With Michigan in the driver’s seat for a Big Ten regular-season title, all eyes now turn to a potential No. 1 seed in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

The only thing standing between the Wolverines and their second top-10 win in five days is the presumptive Wooden Award winner and a roster full of elite shooters. There is, however, a recipe for defensive success under those circumstances.

“We have to take away the three while making sure that Garza doesn’t have a record that everybody in the country’s talking about on Friday morning,” Martelli said.