At this point last season, Michigan fans were doing calculus to figure out how many games Michigan could drop to still make the NCAA Tournament. This year, they're trying to figure out who they can realistically beat in a conference that appears far weaker than it initially seemed. The two losses in Big Ten play are acceptable and probably expected for any Michigan fan, and despite the loss on Sunday, the Iowa game provided the Wolverines with a ton of answers about the overall identity of this team. With that, let's jump into the week that was and the week ahead.
On Sunday, Michigan traveled to Iowa City in all its glory with bone-chilling temperatures and the home to eye poking legend Adam Woodbury. Iowa turned up the heat in the gym, however, taking an 11-0 lead to start before Michigan found their footing. Michigan was able to cut into the lead and ultimately take it, with back-to-back dunks from Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson, the first one leading to a hug from John Beilein to Aubrey Dawkins after a gorgeous pass to Wagner.
Iowa took a five-point lead into the halftime break, but an Aubrey Dawkins 3-pointer just before the TV timeout actually gave Michigan a 52-51 lead. Iowa hit a jumper right after and never relinquished the lead, going on to win 82-71 in a game that was more like a five or six point victory rather than eleven.
While a loss is always disappointing, losing to the hottest team in the Big Ten on their home court is nothing to be disappointed about. The Hawkeyes are up to #9 in the latest AP Poll, and there's good reason for that. Along with Robert Carter of Maryland, I'd argue Jarrod Uthoff is the toughest cover in the Big Ten. He did take 20 shots on Sunday, but his ability to stretch the floor, knock down the long ball and make mid-range shots make him so tough. At 6'9", he can shoot over smaller defenders, and 6'8" Duncan Robinson had his hands full despite forcing Uthoff into 9-20 shooting.
As good as Uthoff is, Iowa's biggest key going forward could be Peter Jok. The junior is averaging 14 points per game, and had 16 against Michigan on 6-11 shooting including 4-6 from 3. It seemed all of Jok's 3-pointers were timely shots, prompting some curse words from my friends and I watching the game. He's a big shooting guard at 6'6", and with defenses having to focus on Uthoff, Jok seems to find space in the corner to shoot and make at will.
No other Iowa player was dominant, but two other guys really stood out. Mike Gesell, the point guard who has been in Iowa City for roughly seven years at this point, is a scrappy "pain in the ass" Big Ten point guard who gets under your skin and does a little bit of everything. Four points, five rebounds and seven assists don't jump off the page, but he did his job extremely well. Dom Uhl is the other guy for the Hawkeyes, a stretch 4/5 off the bench who can defend, rebound and knock down the long ball, another major threat for Iowa going forward.
For Michigan, this was a game they probably weren't going to win even with LeVert, and competing for 40 minutes at Iowa is a huge positive. Despite scoring 71 points, no offensive player looked extremely great in this game. Derrick Walton finished with 16 points, five rebounds and six assists, but the 5-14 shooting is a major black eye. Zak Irvin only took eight shots en route to 11 points, but the eight rebounds and five assists is great considering how Irvin came to Michigan as just a shooter.
Off the bench, the best weapon continues to be Aubrey Dawkins. It's clear that he's finally becoming comfortable in his role as the sixth man, and his shooting on Sunday (4-6, 3-5 on 3s) is exactly what Michigan is going to need going forward. Bringing Dawkins, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and a second big off the bench is a great eight man rotation that Beilein is going to have at his disposal once Caris comes back, and the players seem comfortable in their roles.
Another wrinkle Beilein threw in yesterday was playing D.J. Wilson alongside either Wagner or Mark Donnal. Wilson is not the most competent offensive player yet, but if the opponent plays two bigs like Uthoff and Woodbury, having someone like Wilson to fill the void for two or three minutes at a time at least can help Michigan on the defensive glass and at least Wilson helps space the floor.
Overall, Michigan has to be pretty content sitting at 13-5 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten. This upcoming stretch is four extremely winnable games, and Michigan probably needs to do just that given their only major victory of the season comes against Maryland.
Wednesday begins that stretch, as the Wolverines welcome the Minnesota Golden Gophers to town. There's no sugar coating it, but Minnesota has been awful. The Gophers sit at 6-12 overall and 0-6 in the Big Ten, with forward Joey King leading the team with 13 points per game. Point guard Nate Mason sits right behind him with just over 12, and guard Carlos Morris is shooting about 40% from deep. Minnesota does start 6'11" center Bakary Konate who could be a headache for the Michigan bigs, but Konate only averages five points and four rebounds per game.
This is a game Michigan simply has to win given how bad Minnesota has been, and hopefully a game where some of the younger players can make some dents in the scoring column.
On Saturday, Michigan has a trap game at a Nebraska team also desperate for wins. Nebraska doesn't have any dominant bigs, but Shavon Shields, Andrew White and company are chomping at the bit to play the Wolverines. If Michigan can (and should) get by these two teams, they sit at 5-2 in the Big Ten with momentum leading into the latter part of their schedule.