The Wolverine

January 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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42 THE WOLVERINE JANUARY 2021 BY CHRIS BALAS A s undefeated non-confer- ence seasons go, Michigan basketball's 2020 sweep won't go down as the most impressive in school history. CO- VID-19 dictated the schedule, one that included three games with MAC schools, a contest with in-state Oak- land University and a showdown with a talented Central Florida squad, but no high-major opponents. On the surface, it might appear to be a cakewalk. In reality, the three MAC schools — Bowling Green, Ball State and Toledo (a late substitution for NC State, which had to bow out of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge Dec. 9 due to a COVID outbreak) — are tal- ented and thought to be among the best in their conference. UCF, meanwhile, was coming off a win over Power Five program Au- burn, which is down this year but has an outstanding recent history, and also beat No. 15 Florida State. The Wolverines dispatched all of them with ease, winning each game by double digits. Only UCF really battled, taking a 10-point lead early in the first half before U-M rallied to blow the Knights out 80-58. Ironically, it was the one team that wasn't supposed to give them any trouble that gave the Wolverines fits. Head coach Greg Kampe's Oakland squad threw a zone defense at U-M and extended the game to overtime before freshman center Hunter Dick- inson took over and led U-M to an 81-71 victory. The Big Ten opener with a tough Penn State team came down to the wire Dec. 13. U-M blew a 15-point first-half lead but then rallied late for a 62-58 victory. "We have a high-character group," head coach Juwan Howard said of his second Michigan team. "All they want to do is do the right thing, keep feeding more and more positive en- ergy to the team. They're doing a great job of leading. They've been awesome whenever they're out there, they're trying to do it, do it hard and do it right, and also to inspire those guys that are waiting to get in. "It's awesome that we've had a chance to experience it this year. We've had situations where we were down, and we had to fight to get back in games. You're going to have those throughout the year. This is go- ing to be one of many. When you talk about the Big Ten season, I'm speak- ing of one of many." That wasn't the case in the sec- ond Big Ten contest at Nebraska, a Christmas Day win in which the Wolverines won for the seventh time to remain the conference's only un- defeated team. Michigan led by only two at the half against the only Big Ten team not in the top 55 (the Cornhuskers were 115th as of Dec. 28), but the Wolverines pulled away in the second half to improve to 7-0 for the third straight season. The meat of the schedule is still ahead and approaching quickly, but as many conference teams were finding out, winning the ones you're supposed to win isn't always as easy as it seems. TOUGHER TESTS AHEAD Unlike past seasons, neither the Wolverines nor any other Big Ten team had a lot of time to prepare for conference play, which figures to be an epic battle for supremacy in 2020-21. Nine teams adorned the Associated Press poll as of Dec. 28, led by No. 6 Wisconsin. Iowa (No. 10), Rutgers (No. 14), Illinois (No. 15), Michigan (No. 16), Michigan State (No. 17), Northwestern (No. 19), Minnesota (No. 21) and Ohio State (No. 25) also made the cut, and none of them had a lot of prep given COVID restrictions on the non-conference schedules. In a testament to league toughness, Iowa fell to unranked Minnesota on Christmas Day while MSU fell to 0-2 in Big Ten action with a home loss to Wisconsin after falling at Northwest- ern the previous week. Several games that might have bet- ter prepared them and other league teams for conference play —Michi- gan State at Virginia, Michigan ver- sus NC State among them — were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. Any win in the Big Ten will be big this year, home or away, and there will likely be more of the latter than ever given that usually crazy home environments will give way to near- empty venues with very few, if any, fans. "Non-conference opponents, you haven't seen them much," Howard OFF AND OFF AND RUNNING RUNNING Juwan Howard's Second Michigan Team Jumps Out To A Great Start Howard and the Wolverines started the season 7-0 and were the Big Ten's last remaining undefeated squad. As of Dec. 28, there were only eight Power Five conference teams that had not lost yet. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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