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Michigan vs. Iowa Basketball Preview: Alive but not secure

The brutal stretch continues with a tough trip to Iowa City.

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

The Michigan Wolverines finished their four-games-in-eight-days stretch with a 2-2 record, getting the extremely valuable upset win over Purdue and at least looking competitive in both of the losses. This performance has given them life, but they will likely need to go at least 4-3, maybe 5-2, from here on out to secure a Tournament bid.

Statistically, the toughest remaining game is actually Thursday night in Iowa. Though the Hawkeyes are unranked unlike Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State, analytics think this is a very dangerous team; Kenpom has them with a top-five offense and No. 18 overall in the country.

The good news is that Iowa’s No. 19 NET ranking brings two more big opportunities to strengthen the resume, this week’s battle and the rematch in Ann Arbor. Michigan will need some luck to win one (or both), but as it showed against the Boilermakers, the chance of an upset is never zero, especially against a very lopsided opponent.

Michigan Wolverines (13-10, 7-6) vs. Iowa Hawkeyes (17-7, 7-6)

Date & Time: Thursday, Feb. 17, 7p.m. ET
Television/Streaming: ESPN
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, IA
Big Ten Standings: MICH t-7th, IOWA t-7th
DraftKings Sportsbook Odds: MICH +6, O/U 150

Last year’s top-10 matchup in Ann Arbor was completely dominated by Michigan in the second half, as the Wolverines won 79-57. That iteration of Iowa also featured a top-five offense and simply average defense, which is also Purdue’s model (...and Ohio State’s). Michigan’s path once again will be to bomb in a bunch of threes and score efficiently while getting enough stops defensively.

This plan obviously did not work out so well on Saturday, as the offense was ice cold from three and averaged just 0.92 PPP. Nearly everyone contributed to the issues: Hunter Dickinson was unusually inefficient, Caleb Houstan and DeVante Jones could do nothing from deep, and the bench had just four Frankie Collins points. Statistically this seems unlikely to repeat, but this season has shown that scoring does not come as easily as expected for this team. Still, Iowa is very exploitable so there are points to be had.

The issue is defending a team that plays extremely fast and never turns the ball over. Michigan has not really found its groove on defense and locking down the opponent’s top option has been a challenge. That makes Keegan Murray, one of the nation's most efficient scorers, a massive problem. While the Wolverines have size in the paint, it will be extremely difficult stopping the aggressive forward everywhere else.

Though the Hawkeyes own the conference’s third-most efficient offensive, this oddly does not come because of shooting. There really is nowhere on the floor where they particularly excel; they simply take care of the ball, do not get blocked, and move with urgency. For the Wolverines, the name of the game will be discipline. Just avoiding breakdowns and making it hard for Iowa to find an open look could allow the shooting to even out.

Matchup Highlights

While the record needs to improve, in some ways Michigan needs to just keep doing what it has been and trust that the results will come, at least on offense. The past two games are great examples of what this can look like. The Wolverines had plenty of good looks against both Purdue and Ohio State, just one game featured an abnormal number of threes go in and the either saw a ton of easy misses at the rim. Things like these should level out, and the end product is enough to keep Michigan in most Big Ten games.

No one would suggest the defense has been great, but an optimist can look at the progress over the past month and see the outline of an actually decent group. To go back to the past week, the Boilermakers generally faced a bunch of tough shots and did not connect on them, while the Buckeyes were mostly defended well on the perimeter but still got makes. Michigan can, and must, improve its defensively congruity, but this unit is no longer a complete disaster.