Michigan is coming off a season in which it was one win away from winning the national title, had the No. 3-ranked defense in college basketball and sent two of its players to the NBA.
And yet, to the surprise of just about everyone, it’s looking increasingly plausible that 2018-19 Michigan will be even better than last season’s squad. That seems crazy to think. Then you watch Michigan play. Then it’s easy to believe.
What John Beilein has built is not just a one-year thing. Michigan’s now on Year Three of a wave-curl that’s still gaining velocity and validity. From this month alone, well first we saw Michigan beat the reigning national champions, Villanova, by 27 points at Villanova. Onward ho, and Michigan’s continued to establish itself as elite on defense and opportunistically deadly on offense. And on Wednesday night, the Wolverines were borderline masterful at home, getting to 7-0 thanks to an 84-67 victory over No. 11 North Carolina (6-2).
Convincing would be an understatement for this win. It was a 17-point victory that felt like almost 40.
Here’s a bulletin: The University of Michigan has sweepingly conquered the two coaches and programs responsible for winning the three most recent national championships. At this point, despite its No. 7 ranking, Michigan looks as good as anyone in college basketball. Yes, that means Gonzaga, Kansas and Duke. U of M’s pair of wins over Nova and UNC, and the style in which they came, match up with any other team in the country’s best two games against ranked teams.
And had the Wolverines started the season higher in the preseason rankings than 19th, it would probably be slotted amid the top four with all of those aforementioned schools. Give it two more weeks, tops, and Beilein’s team can be snugged against the Zags, Jayhawks and Blue Devils — so long as it beats Purdue at home and Northwestern on the road.
On the heels of a football season ripe with promise, Michigan fans should take some solace in knowing that the basketball team isn’t built to let down in quite the same way as Jim Harbaugh and the guys in helmets. And after the disappointment of the football team’s implosion against Ohio State, the basketball team has to be easing even just a little bit of the pain of Michigan’s 62-39 loss Saturday at the Horseshoe.
Michigan is not only ranked seventh in the country and still undefeated, it’s also won every game by double digits and has an average margin of victory of 21.7. For as dangerous as Michigan’s been on offense this season and in many in the recent past, it’s the Wolverines’ defense that is carrying its reputation into December. Assistant Luke Yaklich coordinates much of the Michigan team on that end of the floor and he’s getting better by the month.
What a stellar run this is. Again: the wave is still cresting with this program.
When someone as good as Beilein can focus more on the offense, and leave the defensive heavy lifting to his trusted assistants, it only makes a team with this much size, talent and skill all the more dangerous.
Prior to Wednesday, North Carolina’s season low in points was 78. Michigan dropped it another 11 points. The Wolverines’ 84 points, inversely, tied a season-high. What was set up to be one of the most enticing games of the week turned heavy, hard and fast in Michigan’s favor early in the second half.
It’s impressive to see this, given the Wolverines no longer have Moe Wagner, Duncan Robinson or Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rakhman. Yet the injection of freshman Iggy Brazdeikis has been a revelation. The Canadian power forward plays with an intensity, confidence and spirit that’s abnormal for a freshman of his size and skill level. He’s tangibly added something to this unit that’s paying dividends in big ways.
Michigan wound up shooting 50 percent (11 for 22) from 3-point range and 57 percent overall from the field. Brazdeikis had a game-high 24 points. Charles Matthews, someone likely to be playing in an NBA uniform a year from now, had 21. Jordan Poole added 18. Only eight Michigan players saw the floor. Is this only the beginning?
We’ve got a lot of road to cover, but unless injury bad luck or something bizarre takes over with these Wolverines, it’s hard to envision Michigan not being a national factor the entire season. It’s already rounded into form to the point where no one is eager to play this team.
This is the second 7-0 start for Michigan under Beilein. The only other time it happened was in 2012; that season ended with Michigan in the national title game. After a grand November, it’s easy to see how this season could also finish with the Wolverines playing into April yet again.