Having spent more than half of my life with access to the internet, I have become so desensitized that almost nothing makes me squeamish anymore. But I’ll be honest: ESPN’s broadcast on Wednesday night left me extremely unsettled, to the point that I have half a mind to write a letter to the Federal Communications Commission. And, folks, I’m not just talking about Ignas “Iggy” Brazdeikis’s haircut. I’m talking about ESPN allowing every second of Michigan’s rout of North Carolina to unfold live on its airwaves. After taking the first eight minutes of the game to properly calibrate the torture chamber that is their defense, the Wolverines absolutely suffocated one of the best offenses in college basketball and held the Heels to 39 percent shooting from the field in an 84-67 win. Cameron Johnson, Carolina’s leading scorer heading into Wednesday, was MIA for so much of the game that he might as well have stayed in Chapel Hill. All-American Luke Maye shot just 4-for-12 from the field, future lottery pick Nassir Little was 1-for-5, and Roy Williams’s brain was so broken that he gave Little just 16 minutes of playing time off the bench and started pulling hockey line changes when the game was still within reach.
It was a thorough ass-kicking, and the most terrifying thing of all is that it was the worst defensive performance that Michigan has put forth this season. Two weeks after shredding defending national champion Villanova on the road, the no. 7 Wolverines sit at 7-0, have blown out every team they’ve faced, and have the best defense in college basketball by a significant margin. It’s time to start asking a question that, as of a month ago, seemed too ridiculous to even entertain: Could this Michigan team really be better than last year’s team that won 33 games and finished as the national runner-up?
The NCAA tournament is still a long way off and plenty can happen between now and then, but anyone who has watched even 10 minutes of any Michigan game this season knows that the answer to that question is obviously yes. Maybe the new question should be: How is Michigan doing this? How can the Wolverines lose three of their top four scorers from last year — Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Duncan Robinson — and get better despite bringing in an underwhelming recruiting class? Well, for starters, the loss of Wagner and the idea that the Wolverines landed a so-so recruiting class are both refuted by the existence of Brazdeikis, who is pretty clearly just Wagner in disguise. The four-star “freshman from “Canada” has been a revelation for a team desperate for offensive help, as Faux Wagner is averaging 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.0 snake forearm tattoos per game. (I mean, Brazdeikis wears Wagner’s jersey number 13, for God’s sake. Could it be any more obvious?)
Beyond that, what’s propelling Michigan to surprising heights this early in the season is a tale as old as time in college basketball: individual improvement across the board paired with some good old-fashioned team defense. That second part is what’s generating early headlines, and rightfully so. Like Virginia in recent years, Michigan’s smothering defense isn’t necessarily the result of overwhelming athleticism as much as it can be explained by every player on the team being on the same page and moving as one cohesive unit. (Although, having a guy like Charles Matthews, who can swallow up anyone that he’s put in front of, certainly helps.) Wednesday’s win over North Carolina is a perfect example of how much this stuff matters. After all, the Heels had better athletes than Michigan at pretty much every position, yet Carolina’s defense was carved up all night by simple ball-screen actions. And when the Wolverines were on defense, it felt like they were playing with seven guys on the court.
But defense tells only half the story of the Wolverines’ early success. The other, more surprising element, is how much the role players on last year’s team have risen to the occasion with increased opportunities. Jordan Poole has been awesome as a starter (10.1 points, 4.1 boards, 2.1 assists per game while shooting 40.6 percent from 3) and is well on his way to becoming more than just a living, breathing meme who hit a shot to beat Houston that one time in the NCAA tournament. Isaiah Livers, who started as a freshman last season, but is now coming off the bench because of Brazdeikis, has been so aggressive and effective as a sophomore that he looks like an entirely different player. Jon Teske is a legitimate asset and not just a big body to take up space and eat up minutes, while Eli Brooks is one or two games away from already making as many 3s as he hit as a freshman a year ago. Throw in the emergence of Brazdeikis, Zavier Simpson’s willingness to become even more of a facilitator, and the all-around brilliance of Matthews — who is basically a guard version of Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, in that he can do everything on the court except shoot — and it’s no wonder that Michigan looks every bit like a national title contender.
This is why I think Michigan might be the perfect college basketball team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Wolverines are without flaws. They have plenty, like free throw shooting, 3-point shooting, interior depth, and just an overall bad hair vibe. But that they have found a way to destroy their opponents in spite of those flaws is the essence of what makes college basketball so great. Forget about whether a team loads up on one-and-dones or transfers, is more offensive- or defensive-minded, relies on athleticism or experience, or shoots a ton of 3s. As far as I’m concerned, “doing it the right way” means having a firm grasp on your team’s strengths and weaknesses and devising a strategy around them instead of trying to stubbornly fit a square peg through a round hole.
No coach in the United States is better at adapting to his personnel than John Beilein, who has completely revamped his program’s identity in a snap. Just five years after taking the nation’s best offense to the national title game before losing to [vacated], Beilein returned last season, only this time with one of the country’s best defenses. Seven games into this season, Michigan seems to represent the final stage of the Wolverines’ transformation from offensive juggernaut to defensive brick wall. All of this, of course, is by design. It’s not like Beilein decided one day that he was sick of his team pouring in points and would rather coach a bunch of dudes who can’t shoot. But it’s also not like he fell ass-backward into this new identity, either; he wasn’t oblivious to the fact that Simpson, Matthews, and Poole aren’t Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, and Tim Hardaway Jr. Instead, Beilein has done what he always does: recruit guys who he thinks can play and then figure out the best recipe to create wins from the ingredients at his disposal. As it turns out, when those ingredients include Matthews, Simpson, Livers, and Teske, and your sous chef is Michigan assistant/defensive guru Luke Yaklich, the winning recipe calls for a heavy dose of lockdown D.
If what the Wolverines did at Villanova didn’t make you a believer, surely Wednesday night’s destruction of Carolina did the trick. It’s how Michigan is winning that is so impressive. Michigan is clearly more determined and ruthless than any other team this season, and it will not fall victim to its own hubris. The Wolverines know who they are and appear to be on a mission: They play their asses off every second, take a ton of pride in the idea of playing for something bigger than themselves, and are led by a coach whose opponents respect him as much as they fear him. Best of all, even though we’re just seven games into the season, I’ve seen enough to believe they’ll get better as the spotlight gets brighter. In other words, Michigan’s basketball program is everything that Michigan’s football program wishes it could be.