The day before the Michigan Wolverines took the court against No. 9 Iowa, Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli expected the Hawkeyes to push his team to its defensive limits.
For one, the third-ranked Wolverines were coming off one of their worst defensive efforts in a 92-87 win over No. 4 Ohio State. The going was only expected to get tougher on that end of the floor, as Iowa entered Thursday night’s top-10 matchup with the nation’s No. 1 adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Buoyed by the Big Ten’s best 3-point shooting clip and National Player of the Year frontrunner Luka Garza (24.7 points per game), it could’ve been another long night for Michigan’s defense.
“We have to take away the three while making sure that (Luka) Garza doesn’t have a record that everybody in the country’s talking about on Friday morning,” Martelli said during a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday.
But against the Hawkeyes, the Wolverines’ defense rose to the challenge. Michigan held Iowa to a season-worst 57 points on a 36-percent clip from the field and limited Garza to 6-of-19 shooting. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson used his two-inch height advantage to make Garza’s life miserable in the low post, while Austin Davis and Brandon Johns did their best to follow suit during Dickinson’s bench stints.
It was a stark contrast to the last time Garza visited Crisler Center, where he posted 44 points last December. This time around, all he could do was throw his towel in frustration on the Iowa bench as Michigan ran away with the game in the second half.
Part of Dickinson’s success against Garza in the post can be attributed to Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s tutelage leading up to Thursday. Dickinson spent the week going up against Jaron Faulds of the scout team at practice, and Howard blew his whistle and stopped the scrimmage whenever Faulds buried Dickinson in transition or on the block.
During the breaks, Howard told Dickinson that losing his positioning would only lead to Hawkeye buckets later in the week. That forced Dickinson to make a habit of three-quarter fronting Faulds, which translated to his steady defensive performance against Garza on Thursday.
During the days between the Ohio State game and Thursday, Howard also sat his team down for a defensive film session that revealed more than a few flaws. As the tape rolled, Michigan players looked at each other, shaking their heads in disapproval.
“(Howard) doesn’t play about that defensive end,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “Yeah, we came out of Columbus with a ‘W,’ but our defense numbers were terrible. … We knew Iowa coming in Thursday, today, was going to come into our house, highest-scoring Big Ten team, and we knew it was the perfect challenge. It felt like it was set up this way on purpose for us to prove ourselves and we took the challenge. Everybody who checked in, even the guys on the bench took the challenge. Scout team gave it to us every day during the week to get us ready for this team. And they did a great job. We stayed disciplined, that’s how our defense works. We all trust one another.”
The Wolverines passed the challenge with flying colors. They held Iowa to just 0.89 points per possession and its lowest scoring total in 23 months. The Hawkeyes — who entered Thursday averaged 19 assists per game — finished with just four assists. Michigan suffocated Iowa’s generational offense, bringing the Wolverines one step closer to an outright Big Ten title in the process.
Going into Thursday’s game, Howard recalled leaving his team with one defensive message: “If we don’t (improve), then we’re gonna have some sad faces after the game.”
As the Wolverines jogged off the court following a 22-point blowout, there wasn’t a sad face in sight. And to Martelli’s pleasure, the only thing the entire country will be talking about on Friday morning is Michigan’s stout defense.