| Detroit Free Press
Franz Wagner on how Michigan basketball’s hyped bench makes difference
Franz Wagner explains how Michigan basketball’s hyped bench makes a difference, after the 77-54 blowout of Wisconsin, Jan. 12, 2021.
To understand Michigan basketball, listen to Isaiah Livers talk about his team’s practices.
There is a drill the Wolverines run called the “Hunger Games,” named after the popular dystopian novels (and movies) in which people are forced to fight to the death until one is left standing.
Michigan’s version is less grim and involves no bloodshed.
But there’s a reason the drill is named the way it is.
“There’s no fouls, no calls, out of bounds,” Livers said. “You’re fighting for rebounds, you’re fighting for loose balls, you’re fighting for every bucket you get. Obviously after we go back and watch film, we say that’s a foul, that’s a foul, but we’re competing.
“We call it ‘Hunger Games’ for a reason. The strong survive. It’s for competitors only, that’s our motto. That second half, when it’s 0:00, that’s when we let up.”
On Tuesday night, Wisconsin became the latest team to discover how everlasting Michigan’s intensity can be in the Wolverines’ 77-54 blowout victory at Crisler Center.
A highly anticipated matchup between two top-10 teams devolved into a laugher when the Wolverines (11-0, 6-0 Big Ten) embarked upon a 43-6 run between the 5:27 mark of the first half and the 10:43 mark of the second half. Michigan led by 40 points and was still chasing loose balls. It was playing relentless defense. The bench was celebrating every made shot as if it were a game-winner.
At the 8:35 mark, Chaundee Brown was whistled for a foul. He was visibly displeased. Michigan was up 34.
This team plays with dogged determination drawn partly from shared experiences of veterans like Brown and Mike Smith, who went a combined 19-42 last season and left their previous schools in search of meaningful March basketball.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Livers said. “Everybody enjoys each other’s success. They’re not worried about their playing time.”
The Wolverines are wired like a team desperate to win, as if losing would be world-ending. Remarkably, they combine that passion with more talent and depth than almost any team in the country.
It has become readily apparent Michigan is built to compete for a national title this season, and there is no reason to wait for 2022, when the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class arrives on campus, or for the season after that.
With Tuesday’s win, the Wolverines became the first team in history to beat three ranked teams by at least 19 points each. Their past three games have been against ranked opponents in Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin; the average margin of victory is 22.3 points. And somehow, the games have not been as close as the final scores, with the Wolverines holding 29, 37 and 40-point leads in each respective contest. Let that sink in.
While the quality of opponent has increased with each new game, the path to victory has remained unchanged. Michigan has led at halftime of each game before opening up a lopsided lead at the beginning of the second half. Tuesday’s performance was the most impressive yet.
Against a Wisconsin team that won a share of the Big Ten title last season and was ranked in the top-10 by pollsters and analytics alike, the Wolverines played stifling defense. Wisconsin (10-3, 4-2) averaged 0.697 points per possession in the first half and would’ve averaged lower in the second half had Michigan not emptied the bench late. The Badgers entered ranked third nationally in turnover percentage; they had seven giveaways in the first half, as the Wolverines picked off passes and turned them into breakaway layups and dunks.
Michigan ceded numerous open 3-pointers off pick-and-pop action, but those were about the only clean looks Wisconsin could generate. The Badgers shot 11 of 37 on 2s (29.7%) and were blocked nine times. In the second half, their forays to the rim became increasingly desperate and less successful, as Michigan embarked upon a 29-6 run to extend the lead to 40.
When these two teams played last season, Wisconsin scored whenever and wherever it wanted en route to an 81-74 win. And nearly every significant contributor from that team returned this season.
It didn’t matter Tuesday.
“They’ve done that to a lot of teams,” said Wisconsin coach Greg Gard. “They get a little spark and it turns into an avalanche.”
Michigan has all the tools for a deep postseason run. It has the nation’s sixth-most efficient offense, keyed by freshman center Hunter Dickinson, who is averaging nearly 20 points per game during conference play, and a bevy of talented scorers like Livers, Franz Wagner and Mike Smith, who scored a team-high 16 points against Wisconsin. The backcourt, consisting of Smith and Eli Brooks, is reliable initiating the offense and handling the ball.
Defensively, the Wolverines have two individual players in Wagner (four steals against the Badgers) and Brooks who are among the best defenders in the conference at their positions. Dickinson (three blocks) is a load inside who contests shots and rarely fouls. Livers (three blocks) and Brown are upper-echelon defenders on the wing, too.
Michigan’s defense allows opponents to shoot 38.3% on 2s, tops in the nation. The Wolverines have a block percentage of 14%, which ranks No. 15. And on the other end, they are shooting 60.7% on 2s (No. 7), 37.3% on 3s (No. 47) and 78.3% at the free-throw line (No. 16). This team has a lot of ways to beat teams. And so far, it has displayed the sheer force and will to beat them by a lot.
While it is early, Michigan finds itself in the catbird seat in the race for the conference title. The Wolverines are 6-0 and up two games on Wisconsin; they play second-place Iowa and third-place Illinois once each, both in Ann Arbor. The schedule is set up favorably for Michigan to hang at least one banner this season.
But the Wolverines don’t just dream of winning the Big Ten title.
“Our goal is to be the last team standing left in April,” Howard said.
It remains to be seen whether Michigan can accomplish that. But it’s safe to say the Wolverines have the ability and potential to do so.
Michigan basketball’s Juwan Howard: We have beautiful buy-in from our players
Juwan Howard has high praise for his Michigan basketball team, says there is beautiful buy-in after 77-54 blowout of Wisconsin, Jan. 12, 2021.