‘They’re as good as it gets’: Wolverines making their case in Big Ten chase

Chaundee Brown felt Michigan was being counted out before the race even began….

‘They’re as good as it gets’: Wolverines making their case in Big Ten chase
'They're as good as it gets': Wolverines making their case in Big Ten chase 1

James Hawkins
 
| The Detroit News

Chaundee Brown felt Michigan was being counted out before the race even began.

Heading into the season, the returning talent at Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin attracted much of the attention, while Michigan State and Rutgers were being mentioned in the contender chatter.

And after leading the pack a quarter of the way through the conference marathon, Brown still feels like the Wolverines are being overlooked.

“We knew that a lot of people were doubting us from the jump, but we know that’s their opinion,” Brown said last week before Michigan recorded back-to-back top-20 wins over Northwestern and Minnesota. “Like Coach (Juwan) Howard tells us before the games, they really don’t think we can do it. We’re just proving people wrong. For us, I feel like we’ve got to keep our heads down and keep grinding.

“I feel like people don’t give us the respect we need. I feel like they’re talking about other teams that are not undefeated and they’re a Final Four team, an Elite Eight team and things like that. We know we’re better than them and we’re going to be in that spot down the line.”

Given how well the Wolverines have been playing as of late — recording four straight Big Ten wins by at least 11 points to improve to 10-0 overall and 5-0 in league play — they’re not the only ones.

When Michigan traveled to Maryland for a New Year’s Eve matchup, the Terrapins were riding high and coming off a road win against then-No. 6 Wisconsin, their first victory over a top-10 team since 2016.

By the time the Wolverines left town, they hung up 84 points, shot a blistering 58.8% from the field and walked away with an 11-point win despite the Terrapins making a season-high 13 3-pointers. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon didn’t need many words to summarize what happened, stating: “We couldn’t guard them.”

“This league is phenomenal. It’s an amazing basketball league and I’ve played in a lot of leagues,” said Turgeon, whose coaching stops include places like Kansas, Oregon, Texas A&M and Wichita State.

“That was a heck of a team. I think the last two teams we’ve played could be Final Four teams. They’re just terrific basketball teams.”

More: Juwan Howard, Wolverines see focus on defense pay dividends

Northwestern coach Chris Collins had similar comments after the Wolverines rang in the new year in impressive fashion and poured cold water all over the Wildcats’ hot start.

Following a 15-point loss at Iowa, Collins said his team was confident, prepared and ready to bounce back when it made the trip to Ann Arbor. Instead, Northwestern was handed a second straight setback in a 19-point thrashing where the Wildcats were stymied from 3-point range, trailed by as much as 29 and never applied any pressure after halftime. Or, as Collins simply explained: “Michigan just had their way with us.”

“I don’t think anybody expects anyone to go 20-0 in this year’s Big Ten,” Collins said. “We just played two of the best teams in the country, in my opinion. What we just faced with Iowa and what we faced at Michigan, they’re as good as it gets.”

One recurring talking point in opponents’ postgame pressers has been Michigan’s size and physicality, which has given teams fits on both ends.

Collins noted his team was giving up length and weight at every position besides point guard — particularly against Michigan’s frontcourt combination of sophomore wing Franz Wagner, senior forward Isaiah Livers and freshman center Hunter Dickinson — and it knocked the Wildcats back.

Collins said the Wolverines’ ability to cover ground and challenge shots on defense was problematic, as was their humming offense that the Wildcats couldn’t slow down, regardless if they played man or zone. The Wolverines drained nine of their season-high 12 3-pointers in the first half before switching things up and physically imposing their will in the post in the second half.

“That’s what makes them very difficult because they have a guy in Dickinson that commands a lot of attention down low,” Collins said. “He’s big, he’s strong. It’s hard to play him with single coverage and then he’s doing a good job of recognizing where help is and where to get the ball. With that kind of shooting, it just makes them really difficult to defend.”

Like Collins, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said Michigan’s effort and length put them on their heels and disrupted their offense. The Gophers were held in check throughout the game, shot below 34% from the field in both halves and had a nine-minute stretch where they made just one shot.

On the other end, Minnesota offered little resistance as Michigan’s versatile offense attacked the basket, executed at a high level and turned a six-point halftime lead into a 37-point advantage 12 minutes into the second half.

“I think they’ve got really good balance,” Pitino said. “They’ve got a guy in Dickinson who puts so much pressure on you in ball screens. He’s so big, he’s so physical. Livers has been a really good player in this league for a while. Wagner has got size. They’re a very talented team. Well coached. Juwan is doing a great job.”

According to Turgeon, the driving force of Michigan’s well-oiled machine is Dickinson, who has feasted on foes and passed every test that has been thrown his way.

Since moving into the starting lineup at the beginning of conference play, Dickinson is averaging 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 74.6% from the field and 78.3% from the free-throw line. More importantly, he’s averaging 30.2 minutes per game and has been defending without fouling, drawing more than three whistles only once.

“We threw a lot of different bodies at him,” Penn State interim coach Jim Ferry said after the Nittany Lions’ four-point loss last month. “We tried fronting him in the post. We tried taking away his right shoulder in the post. He’s huge and he took advantage of it.”

Pitino even compared Dickinson to Iowa’s Luka Garza, the reigning Big Ten player of the year, due to his ability to quickly score off a variety of post moves and rolls before a second defender could arrive.

Yet, Pitino’s defensive strategy, like every other team this season, had no answers for Dickinson. He poured in a season-high 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting in a 25-point drubbing.

“Those three that we’ve had duds against are some really good teams,” Pitino said, referencing his team’s previous road losses at Illinois and Wisconsin. “I think Michigan has got as much talent as any team in the country that I’ve seen, and I think Juwan is doing a really good job of getting them bought in.”

Regardless if outsiders have started to buy into Michigan, there’s still a long way to go and plenty of hurdles ahead, like Tuesday’s test against Wisconsin and a tough closing stretch.

But so far, the Wolverines have put themselves in a favorable position in the Big Ten’s grueling gauntlet and are making their case as a legitimate conference contender.

“I don’t care about any of that attention or begging for national credit. I’m just looking at it one game at a time,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said last week. “Our next opponent now, that’s what my focus is going to be on — how we can get better, how we can prepare for our next opponent.

“I’ll let the AP polls and the coaches’ polls do what they do. That’s not our focus. Our main goal is to be the No. 1 team standing at the end and that’s what we’re working toward.”

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

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