Michigan Basketball: an undefeated start

Tears were being shed by the Michigan Wolverines after losing the national championship game last April.

Eight months later, the Wolverines are atop the college basketball world once again, still yet to lose a game in the 2018-19 season.

In 2017, the Wolverines were led by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Moe Wagner and Duncan Robinson. These players accumulated a combined average of 36.7 points a game, and are all no longer playing for Michigan. Correspondingly, scoring was one of many concerns entering the season, and many experts predicted the Wolverines would have an off year. They thought wrong.

The Wolverines opened their second game of the year against the Holy Cross Crusaders, a seemingly easy opponent. However, the Wolverines could not manage to score, and were down 18-24 at the half. Crisler Center was silent, as Wolverine fans anxiously awaited the second half of this predicted blowout. Fortunately for them, the nervousness ended, largely due to the play of Mono, Ontario native and freshman phenom Ignas Brazdeikis.

Iggy is what many Wolverine fans refer to as the five-star Canadian wing who has taken college basketball by storm. In a class filled with well-known names like Zion Williamson, Romeo Langford and R. J. Barrett, the versatile 6’8” wing flew relatively under the radar to the national media. Not any more. Iggy contributed 19 points as the Wolverines came roaring back, outscoring the Crusaders 38-13 in the second half and winning their second game of the season. There was no time for celebrations, seeing that the Wolverines had an upcoming road game against the very team that prevented them from putting on a ring last April in San Antonio.

The Villanova Wildcats were the reigning national champions in college hoops. The Finneran Pavilion is the Wildcats’ new stadium, and the stage of the championship rematch in Philadelphia. As the Wolverines took the floor against the heavily favored Wildcats, there was a delay before The Star Spangled Banner in order to give the home team time to hang up the national championship banner, directly in front of the Wolverine players.

This may have been good for TV ratings, but this tense start did not formulate well for the Wildcats. Less than 16 minutes into the game the Wolverines were leading 26-10 and they never looked back, allowing only 46 points in total to the eighth-ranked team in the country. Three games into the year, and the Wolverines had already avenged a loss that had haunted them all since the tournament. Still, there was much to be done.

The next test for the Wolverines would come in the form of a tournament: The Air Force Reserve Tip-Off. The two games, which were back-to-back nights, will help prepare the team for quick turnarounds they will have to endure in March, in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournament. After the colossal win over the Wildcats, this was also a chance to showcase the maturity of the team, after coming off such an emotional game.

The Wolverines didn’t skip a beat. Against both the George Washington Colonials and the Providence Friars, the Wolverines never trailed. They trampled the Colonials 84-61, being led by senior Charles Mathews with 25 points on 10 of 13 shooting.  A lower scoring affair against the Friars resulted in a similar result in a 66-47, this time being led by Ignas Brazdeikis with 20 points. The Wolverines were crowned Air Force Reserve Tip-Off champions but still had a bigger goal in mind, a national title.

The Wolverines faced off against the Chattanooga Mocs on Black Friday in Ann Arbor. Heading in, the Wolverines moved up nine spots in the AP Top 25 to the ninth ranked team in the country, cracking the top 10 for the first time this season. They played like it, as the Wolverines defeated the Mocs 83-55, again without ever trailing. The next opponent was not going to be so straightforward, as a potential player of the year candidate, Luke Maye, and the North Carolina Tar Heels were coming to Ann Arbor.

On Nov. 29, 2017, the Wolverines were in Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels. By halftime, the Tar heels were up by 15 and had scored 51 points in the first half against the Wolverines’ defense. The game finished 86-71, where the Wolverines were clearly outmatched for 40 straight minutes. 364 days later, the Wolverines and Tar heels were set to face once again, on a sold out Wednesday night in Crisler Center.

A lot can change in a year.

The Tar Heels went up 21-11 with over 12 minutes left in the first half, but then the defense woke up. The Tar Heels’ offense was held scoreless for nearly four straight minutes, leading to a 28-14 run for the Wolverines to conclude the first half.

The second half was more of the same as the defense allowed just eight points through the first eight minutes of the second half, allowing Michigan to take a 63-43 lead with twelve minutes to go in the half. The Tar Heels were able to cut the lead to 11 late in the second half, but it was too little too late, as they fell 84-67.

Next up, the Purdue Boilermakers, the first Big Ten matchup of the season for the Wolverines. Before coming to Ann Arbor, Purdue had lost two out their last three games, and were coming off a one-point loss to Florida State in which they blew an eight point lead with less than four minutes left. Purdue was averaging 83.4 points before entering Crisler Center. They left having only scored 57, in a dominating 19 point win for the home team. Less than four minutes into the first half, Purdue Coach Matt Painter was forced to call a timeout, down 4-13. Six minutes later he was forced to call another, being down 16-31 with over 10 minutes to go in the first half. This timeout was also unsuccessful. The Wolverines never let up, and fans were exiting with over seven minutes left in the second half. The game ended with a score of 76-57, with Wolverines led by Jordan Poole, who was perfect on all five of his shots from beyond the arc.

The Big Ten Conference is the deepest conference in college basketball in the 2018-19 season, making every road game difficult to win. In Evanston, Illinois, it was no different. Michigan controlled the game in the first half, but could never seem to pull away from the Northwestern Wildcats. To start the off the second half, they did just that, starting off with nine straight points, going up 45-30. Slowly, the Wildcats started chipping away at the Wolverines’ lead, bringing the score to 51-45 with just under 12 minutes to go. Six minutes later, the Wolverines still had 51 points and the Wildcats were up by three, on the verge of upsetting the fifth ranked team in the country.

In the past, the Wolverines would have leaned on one of their veterans to make a big shot. The problem was that there is only one senior on the roster, Charles Matthews, a player who is not known for his jump shooting. Instead, they gave Freshman Iggy Brazdeikis the ball to break the scoring drought, nothing but nylon.

The score was tied 54-54 after the huge three-pointer by Brazdeikis. However, after a layup by the Wildcats, the Wolverines were in a similar situation, except this time they gave the ball to sophomore Eli Brooks, a bench player who was yet to attempt his first shot of the game. He stepped into a three and had an equivalent result to his teammate, all net.

From there the defense took over, allowing only two points in the final four minutes of the game. The Wolverines were victorious 62-60, courtesy of Jordan Poole’s one-handed slam with just under two minutes to go. The Wolverines players were relieved after Ryan Taylor’s three point attempt was off the mark, keeping Michigan’s ten game win streak alive.

The last time Michigan Basketball was 10-0, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Caris Levert, Glenn Robinson III, and Nik Stauskas were on the roster, all established players in the NBA today. A team that was filled with six NBA players is a lot different than the team today, yet both have produced the same result: excellence.

The Wolverines were not there yet, but were one game away from being perfect in the first 10 games of the season. The only team standing between them was a struggling South Carolina Gamecocks team. Only the game was not easy, as the Wolverines realized how truly difficult it is to be undefeated. The game ended with the Wolverines beating the Gamecocks 89-78 in the Poole Party themed game at Crisler Center. Fittingly, Jordan Poole was the difference, scoring 26 points on just 12 shots propelling the Wolverines to 10-0.

10-0 seems great, but in the midst of a 31 game regular season, they still have a long way to go. The team has an ultimate goal of winning a national championship this season, but they need to focus on one game at a time to get there. The morale of the players is high, but in the roller coaster ride of college basketball this will certainly fluctuate throughout the season. Most importantly, the team will experience growth over the next few months, and the 10-0 team we see today will be much more dangerous in the month of March, the month in which wins are most important.

Until then, the Wolverines hope to keep the keep moving up the rankings heading into the new year, having three straight home games against unranked teams. The Big Ten season will resume in 2019 against Penn State on Jan. 3.

Next up for the Wolverines is the Western Michigan Broncos, this Saturday on Dec. 15. The Wolverines hope to keep the streak alive by defending home court and becoming 11-0 on the season.