How to describe Tuesday night in college basketball?
So here was Wisconsin, the No. 9 team in the nation, renowned for keeping every game close to the vest and holding opponents under 62 points – blown away by Michigan 43-6 in one devastating 15-minute hurricane.
Here were the royal trio — Kansas, Kentucky, Duke— all losing.
Here was North Carolina — getting away with shooting under 40 percent again, and winning.
Start in Ann Arbor, where it’s becoming clear that some new thinking about the size of the upper crust of college basketball this season might be in order.
We’re supposed to have the Big Two. Gonzaga and Baylor.
Or maybe the Big Three, with Villanova added in — if the COVID-paused Wildcats ever get to play again.
But perhaps it’s time to find a fourth chair for Michigan. (Or fifth with Texas, or sixth with Iowa).
“Tonight was to show, this is what Michigan basketball is,” senior guard Isaiah Livers was saying after the Wolverines mashed Wisconsin 77-54. It was the latest flexing of Michigan muscle. The Wolverines have played three consecutive ranked opponents — Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin. They led in those three games by 29, 37 and 40 points, and won by 19, 25 and 23. No team in the history of the polls had ever beaten three ranked teams in a row by at least 19 points.
“I hope our guys don’t get too high on that,” coach Juwan Howard said. “We know that it’s still early. We’re not here to break any records. Our goal is to be the last team standing on Monday night in April.”
Tuesday was to be one of the best early-season showdowns in the brutal Big Ten — No. 7 and 10-0 Michigan against No. 9 and 10-2 Wisconsin, its two defeats by six total points. The Wolverines led only 26-23 early, but then suddenly everyone looked up at the scoreboard and it was 69-29. Party time in Crisler Center, even if there wasn’t a crowd.
So Michigan is 11-0, and 6-0, its conference average winning margin at 15.5. The Wolverines are seventh in the nation in shooting, 10th in field goal defense. 12th in rebound margin, 16th in free-throw shooting. They have five seniors in the rotation, but are being led in scoring by a freshman, Hunter Dickinson, who is shooting nearly 71 percent and has become a revelation. Sophomore Franz Wagner — brother Moritz was one of the ringleaders of the 2018 Final Four Wolverines — might be the most improved player in the Big Ten. Their five starters have missed only 21 of 131 free throws all season.
And clearly, looking at the past three games, they have developed the habit of taking no prisoners.
“It’s the way that we’re taught in practice. We have a couple of drills called Hunger Games, where there’s no fouls, there’s no calls,” Livers said. “You’re fighting for every rebound, for a loose ball, you’re fighting for every bucket you get. It’s called Hunger Games for a reason.”
Said Howard, “I will not reveal what Hunger Games is all about…but it’s for competitors only.”
So the Wolverines are having a blast, and appear a glued-together bunch who follow Howard’s mantra to be selfless and relentless. “Coach Howard said we don’t have no vampires, someone to suck the life out of the team just worrying about themselves, me, me me,” Livers said. “That stuff goes a long way.”
“A beautiful buy-in,” said Howard.
Then there were Kansas, Kentucky, Duke. A Tuesday big-name beating.
No. 6 Kansas went on a 19-2 tear in the second half to erase a 16-point Oklahoma State lead, but the Jayhawks lost in the end 75-70. They had won 11 consecutive Big 12 road games, and their last seven defeats had all been against ranked opponents. Both streaks ended in Stillwater. Now 4-2 in the Big 12 and already two games behind Baylor and Texas, Kansas’ annual run for the league title is a little iffy.
“That goal’s not vanished,” Bill Self said, “but certainly it’s getting to the point where there’s less than zero margin for error…I’ve got to get the guys where we think a little tougher.”
After three consecutive wins, Kentucky was supposed to at last be finding answers. The 1-6 start was over, and normalcy was back in the Bluegrass, in time for the Wildcats to be keep moving against Alabama. This, after all, is not football. But the Tide rolled 85-65. It was the worst Kentucky home loss in more than 32 years as the old woes — 19 turnovers, 4-for-18 in 3-pointers – were back. Now the Wildcats are 4-7.
“We reverted. I’m not sure I’ll even watch this tape, to be honest with you. Move on to the next one,” John Calipari said. “This team has made strides so they showed what they can be. But they’ve also shown now what they can be.”
In Duke’s eighth game of the season, the still-searching Mike Krzyzewski sent out his seventh different starting lineup against Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils cut an 18-point deficit to one but never led and lost 74-67, shooting 40 percent and getting outscored 21-6 off the bench. Now they’re 5-3.
“We are still finding out about our team,” Krzyzewski said.
Meanwhile, North Carolina was 5-for-24 from the 3-point and shot 34 percent overall the second half. The Tar Heels still beat Syracuse 81-75, mostly because a 48-31 rebound dominance led to a 24-4 gap in second chance points. The Tar Heels are now 3-2 in ACC play, the five games decided by a total of 17 points. Their last three victories, they’ve shot under 40 percent. Living on the edge.
In the west, USC, trying to establish itself as one of the Pac-12’s top contenders, had to rally to beat UC Riverside in overtime, and might not have pulled it off had the Highlanders not gone 2-for-9 in free throws and been outscored 16-2 from the line.
So Tuesday had intrigue coast to coast, but the Michigan steamroller owned the night.
“They’re having fun,” Howard said. “They’re supposed to have fun.”
They did Tuesday, anyway. They’re 11-0, the women are 9-0. Michigan is the only Division school in America with both teams still unbeaten. Wow.