At the outset of this season, I set my personal expectation for Michigan Basketball to be pretty modest. I expected roughly a top four NCAA Tournament seed and a sweet 16 appearance. I did not, however, seriously expect the Wolverines to be a national title contender. And if I had, I would not have expected it to be revealed in early December. After all, at this time last season, the eventual national runner-up Wolverines were languishing in uncertainty after losing to a not-very-good LSU team in Maui and choking a game away against Ohio State.
Yet defying expectations, Michigan basketball is currently 9-0 and #5 in the country and playing about as good as any team out there. They’ve already blown out blueblood programs like North Carolina and Villanova and dispatched conference foes Purdue and Northwestern. Their red hot success has already acquired recognition from national outlets, such as The Ringer, SB Nation, CBS Sports, and ESPN. It seems like everyone is noticing how good this team currently is, which brings us to the central question: just how good can this team be and are they a national title… favorite?
How good the team is currently
Pretty darn good.
Oh you want details?
They are currently the KenPom #4 team, but since we’re still just over a month into the season, some of those numbers are accounting for preseason, when Michigan was expected to be a fringe top 25 team and many of the other elite teams were not. Removing those preseason factors on BartTorvik.com’s T-Rank (a very similar metric) reveals Michigan to be the best team in the country, just narrowly ahead of Duke. Most notably, Michigan’s defense is suffocating, ranking #1 in KenPom for the whole season, as well as #1 in the T-Rank minus preseason expectations. Not just that, but Michigan’s defense is so much better than its peers: in both of those two metrics, the nation’s #2 defense is closer to #7 than to #1 Michigan. In the first nine games played, Michigan has gone up against two of the nation’s top ten offenses, Purdue and North Carolina, and held both to under a point per possession, as well as under 70 points total.
The defining characteristics of Michigan’s defense are not allowing many three point attempts, not fouling, and sporting the nation’s top 2 point field goal defense. It starts with point guard Zavier Simpson, who is unquestionably the nation’s best defensive point guard. He is the type of player who can just wipe whoever he’s guarding right off the map. He did it to Jalen Brunson in the national title game and Cassius Winston last year, and to Carsen Edwards and Coby White this year. There’s also Charles Matthews, an elite perimeter defender, and Jon Teske, a game-altering rim protector. Even Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis, who were not supposed to be good defensively, have been above-average on that end. Add it up and you have a defense that is currently the best, but has the chance to be one of the best in modern college history.
But outside the defense, the offense isn’t anything to complain about. While it’s not the break-neck unit of Michigan teams past, it is still either top 20 (KP) or top 30 (T-R), depending on which metric you use. Additionally, there’s decent evidence that two grizzly offensive games to start the season against cupcake opponents (Norfolk St. and Holy Cross) are weighing the numbers down, as since that point, Michigan’s adjusted offense has been top 10, to go with the still impenetrable defense. The team has good three point shooters (Poole, Brazdeikis, Brooks, and Livers), a deadly pick-and-roll combo (Simpson and Teske), and overall, just guys who know how to get buckets in big moments, whether it’s Charles Matthews’s silky turn-around jumpers, Jordan Poole’s tenacious drives, or Brazdeikis’s fearless playing style. The ability to get big shots helped stem the tide even as Tuesday’s game against Northwestern seemed to be slipping away.
Finally, there’s just the general impressiveness factor. Michigan isn’t just beating teams: by and large, they’re annihilating them. Despite playing a schedule that includes four “Quadrant 1” games, Michigan has won all nine games but one by at least 17 points, with an average margin of victory for the season of 19.2 points. They’ve led by at least 15 points at one juncture in every single game they’ve played so far.
Can they get better?
Sure. The voice of one of your elementary school teachers rattles in your head as you hear me say “there’s always room for improvement”. When I say that I mostly mean offensively, because the way the defense is right now is more than enough to win a national championship and it feels unrealistic to expect much improvement. Offensively there is room for growth. The game with Northwestern showcased potential issues that arise if teams stop guarding the offensively limited Zavier Simpson altogether. The Wolverines will have to find a solution to that and integrating Isaiah Livers into the offense more actively is something to look into.
The other area is depth. Last year’s Michigan team was pretty deep, often playing 9 guys in the rotation in a given game. This year’s team plays a tight seven. That’s been okay because the starting lineup gels so well together and is playing at such a high level that Michigan has been able to obliterate opponents with just that group alone. Furthermore because Michigan doesn’t foul, it allows them to avoid situations where they need to use more guys. But it won’t be enough as the season goes on, since the occasional foul-happy game will happen (like say the Northwestern affair) and because injuries are natural. Michigan’s bench currently consists of Brooks and Livers, as well as backup C Austin Davis and a whole bunch of freshmen. Livers and Brooks are fine but Davis’s appearances have been ghastly and have increased the load on Teske’s shoulders. At the bare minimum, the Wolverines need another big man to develop unless Davis magically turns it around, and another guard wouldn’t be bad. The most obvious options for those roles are freshmen Brandon Johns (PF) and David DeJulius (PG). Both of whom were pretty sought after recruits and haven’t looked bad in the little time we’ve seen of them. It is imperative for Michigan to use this next month of easier games (more on that in a minute) to bring those guys up to speed.
What the future holds and the national picture
Amazingly, the Wolverines are nearly certain to make it to January undefeated and have a very good chance to get to Martin Luther King weekend still unscathed. That’s because Michigan closes out December with four games against teams they have >96% win probabilities against, followed by an early January Big Ten slate that gives Michigan >80% win probability against every team they see until they head to Wisconsin on Jan. 19. If they made it to Wisconsin undefeated, they would be 17-0 and undoubtedly top three in the nation. The Big Ten is a much stronger conference in 2018-19 than it was the last few years and winning it is going to require beating some solid teams on the road in hostile environments. Torvik currently projects Michigan to finish 16-4 in the Big Ten (winning it by a solid three games) and thus 27-4 overall. Right now that feels like a pretty reasonable projection for how the regular season will play out. If that’s the case, then the Maize and Blue would have a very good chance of securing the program’s first #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament since 1993 and would instantly become a favorite to reach the Final Four.
But in terms of a national picture, where does this team stack up alongside some of the other national names? Right now with the way Michigan is playing, they have as good of a case for national #1 as anybody. Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, and Virginia seem to be the big four teams alongside Michigan making up the nation’s top tier, but no one is demolishing teams like the Wolverines are. This Michigan team is already special, but they have a very real chance to end March Madness as the last team standing.