It took less than two weeks for Michigan to raise its first trophy of the 2018-19 season, it very well may not be the Wolverines last this season either.
Sunday afternoon, Michigan faced what should have been a tricky Providence team, but dispatched of Ed Cooley’s Friars with minimal trouble. With 4:22 left in the first half, the Friars cut it to one, trailing 21-20, but Michigan ended the first half on a 14-2 run where only Jon Teske scored more than 2 points (Bookending the run with a three-pointer and a dunk.) With a 66-47 victory and the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off Tournament trophy in hand and come Monday, a Top 10 ranking in the new AP Poll (No. 9, the highest ranked team in the Big Ten.) So much for a learning curve for a young Michigan team.
Coming into the season, most people thought Michigan had the pieces to be great, few expected the Wolverines to flash the finished product this early. In four of its first five games, Michigan has held opponents to under fifty points. The main seven-man rotation has looked incredibly balanced both offensively and defensively through five games. The Wolverines are the top defensive team in the country according to KenPom. Perhaps what sticks out the most, this team is playing with an unabashed, unapologetic swagger and it’s not even December 1st. The pregame interaction with Villanova being a primary example. The Wildcats walked by the Wolverines and words were exchanged between sophomore guard Jordan Poole and a few Villanova players. The Wolverines did not back down, and it showed on the court.
Sunday, Ignas Brazdeikis was fouled on a layup in the first half that he sunk and did the Connor McGregor strut back to his teammates on the bench (The freshman is a big fan of the Irish MMA fighter based on posts to his Instagram Story.) It took Moe Wagner about a year and a half to find his “voice” as Michigan’s emotional engine, Brazdeikis is happy to provide that service only five games into his career, and he’s been backing up his quotes with his play so far.
The question now is how will Michigan fare looking forward with a bulk of non-conference games remaining in addition to two Big Ten matchups to kick off December? After playing Chattanooga on Black Friday, Michigan will prep for what is almost certain to be a Top 10 matchup against North Carolina (The Tar Heels play Michigan State and UCLA or Texas in Las Vegas this week.) Michigan opens Big Ten play on December first against Purdue, who the Wolverines did not beat during the regular season last year, but defeated in the Big Ten Tournament to win the championship.
As Michigan Football tries to complete its Revenge Tour in Columbus on Saturday against Ohio State, Michigan Basketball is on one of its own (even if they don’t nickname it as such.) North Carolina shot 55% in the Tar Heels 86-71 win over Michigan on November 29, 2017, with the Wolverines playing at home in front of what should be a packed house at Crisler, Michigan will be eager to get one back against the 2017 National Champions.
Three days later, Michigan face off against a Purdue team that won at Crisler last year in somewhat controversial fashion. Charles Matthews had a ball knocked away on his drive to the basket, and the ball was awarded to Michigan. After a video replay review, officials reversed the call and gave possession to Purdue with 6.2 seconds left. An Isaac Haas free throw was enough to give Purdue a 70-69 lead and eventually, a win.
For Michigan’s returning players, much like the Villanova game, UNC and Purdue are likely to stoke their competitive fires. For Ignas Brazdeikis, he will look to put on a show against good competition again. As Iggy’s legend grows, NBA scouts interest in him will only continue. Sports Illustrated listed Brazdeikis as a first-round pick in its most recent mock draft. If this first portion of the season is any indicator of what the Lithuanian-Canadian freshman’s season will become, enjoy Iggy while you can Michigan fans, he is flashing one and done potential. Michigan has not had a freshman enter the NBA Draft since Jamal Crawford in 2000.
Chattanooga comes to Crisler
In what should be a tune-up game, Michigan hosts Chattanooga Friday afternoon at Crisler. The Mocs are making their first trip to Ann Arbor since December 4, 1999, when a Michigan team featuring the likes of LaVell Blanchard and Crawford defeated Chattanooga 72-61.
The Mocs, who compete in the Southern Conference, are led by second-year coach Lamont Paris. Paris does have some familiarity with Michigan; he served as an assistant under both Bo Ryan and Greg Gard at Wisconsin from 2010-2017.
With Friday’s game being Michigan’s only of the week, John Beilein will look to get his primary rotation guys minutes while still trying to work in his four freshmen off the bench as they try and carve out roles while still learning the system.
The real tests for the Wolverines will come next week, but Michigan Basketball can spend this Thanksgiving being thankful for a lot, especially the health of its fearless leader, John Beilein, and the two new banners that hang in Crisler Center.
How this team grows together will be tested in challenges like UNC and Purdue. If the Wolverines perform at the level they did vs. Villanova and Providence, being 8-0 by the first night of Hannukah (Dec. 2) will be less of a surprise, and more along the lines of high expectations for one of the Big Ten’s best so far this year.