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Game Preview: Michigan men’s basketball vs. Iowa

The big man showdown that everyone has been waiting for.

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NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If you enjoyed Michigan’s 92-87 win over Ohio State last Sunday, don’t go anywhere anytime soon. The one Big Ten offense better than the Buckeyes comes to Ann Arbor Thursday.

Iowa came into this season with the favorite for National Player of the Year and legitimate Final Four aspirations. The Hawkeyes have done nothing to disprove them yet. At 17-6 and ranked No. 4 in KenPom, and with the country’s top-rated offense, Thursday’s clash between Michigan and Iowa is basically certain to feature lots of points scored at a high level.

You probably know most of what you need to know about the Hawkeyes at this point. They’re essentially the same team they’ve been throughout Fran McCaffery’s tenure, just with their most talented roster ever. Their offense, always elite, now borders on historically good. Their defense, which is akin to a matador fighting a bull is, well, mostly just that.

Luka Garza is averaging 24.7 points and 8.5 rebounds his senior season, shooting 59 percent on twos, 44 percent on threes and 70 percent from the line. Stats don’t effectively get across how good Garza is. He’s the best player in the country and can hurt you in myriad ways. And it’s not like you can double-team the 6-foot-11, 265-pound juggernaut, either. That’s because...

Joe Wieskamp (15.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg) simply does not miss. The 6-foot-6 junior wing has made nearly half of his 3-pointers this season and can score from any spot on the court. Jordan Bohannon, who missed most of last season due to the aftermath of hip surgery and wasn’t himself when he played, is pretty much back to who he was previously, averaging 9.6 points and hitting 2.4 treys per game and maintaining an assist rate of 3.6-1. You absolutely can’t lose track of CJ Frederick (8.5 ppg), either. Frederick, a 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore, is burying 51 percent of his threes.

Connor and Patrick McCaffery are far more than coaches’ sons. Connor, a 6-foot-5 junior, gives the Hawkeyes elite versatility. While a low-usage offensive player, he distributes effectively, averaging 3.6 assists per game. Patrick is a lengthy, 6-foot-9 freshman who can stretch the floor somewhat.

Garza is backed up inside by Jack Nunge, a versatile 6-foot-11 forward averaging 7.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Also coming off the bench is the 6-foot-8 Keegan Murray, who’s been one of the Big Ten’s impact freshmen. Murray’s shooting 60 percent on twos and 38 percent on threes and averages over a block and a steal per game despite playing less than 20 minutes a night. Both Nunge and Murray are elite rebounders and multi-faceted players overall, meaning Iowa doesn’t crumble to pieces without the Big Ten Player of the Year on the court.

Defending Iowa amounts to picking your poison. The less potent poison might be letting Garza do his thing inside: the Wolverines allowed him to score 44 points when the Hawkeyes came to Crisler Center in December 2019. Michigan won that game, 103-91. Iowa shot 3-of-15 from three-point range. If the Wolverines put too much emphasis on taking Garza out of the game, the Hawkeyes’ three-point percentage will likely be a lot closer to the 40.1 figure they’ve put up in conference play.

Hunter Dickinson keeps running into pivotal matchups in the Big Ten, which is filled with dominating big men like no other. But if Dickinson can at least contain Garza while Eli Brooks and company direct traffic on the wings, ensuring Wieskamp, Bohannon and Frederick don’t slip loose too often, Michigan should be able to live with that. That’s been the Wolverines’ defensive strategy all year, and it’s paid off: they’re the second-best team in the Big Ten at not allowing three-pointers, and the fourth-best team in the Big Ten at not letting them go in.

Iowa will score points. The Wolverines will as well. Iowa’s defense is ninth in the Big Ten during conference play, and gives away 3-point attempts like candy: conference opponents are taking 44 percent of their shots from deep against the Hawkeyes. Garza, for all his offensive gifts, is a liability in pick-and-roll coverage. Mike Smith is coming off a masterful game at Ohio State, in which he scored 11 points and dished out seven assists to one turnover. Smith, Brooks, Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers and Chaundee Brown should be licking their chops looking at the Hawkeyes’ collection of turnstiles.

It’s worth noting that Iowa’s defense has shown improvement in recent weeks. The Hawkeyes are allowing under a point per possession during their recent four-game winning streak, though that’s come against the Big Ten’s seventh, eighth, 10th and 12th-ranked offenses (Rutgers, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State). If that newfound stinginess is even somewhat for real, Michigan will be in real danger.

But until proven otherwise, the Wolverines seem to know the blueprint for beating the Hawkeyes, as evidenced by past encounters with them, and are a much more complete team. Michigan winning this game would have been a decently big upset before the season. At this point, the opposite would be true.