The Wolverine

February 2021

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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FEBRUARY 2021 THE WOLVERINE 35 Ten's best defender this year, and Howard said he wouldn't trade him for anyone. "You only have a few of those guys around," Howard said. "It is a joy to coach a guy who doesn't really care about scoring and is not all about the stats. He just wants to make winning plays to help the team. "Eli's that person. He's always been that guy." ALL FOR ONE Howard has a team full of play- ers like Brooks, and that's what has made the Wolverines so tough to beat. They have great leadership, from seniors Livers and forward Austin Davis (a fifth-year) down, and everyone has accepted his role. H o w a rd h a s m a r v e l e d t i m e and again at how selfless Smith, a 22.6-points-per-game scorer at Co- lumbia last year now averaging 8.4 points and 5.6 assists per game while shooting 47.1 percent from long range, and Brown, now a defensive stopper, have been. Just last year, Brown was a starter playing 30-plus minutes at Wake Forest. He admits he's having much more fun now despite playing just 20.6 minutes per game. "Our group understands they're an experienced group, where you have a mixture of seniors, a soph- omore … we have a freshman and another freshman that play heavily in the rotation [in forward Terrance Williams]," Howard said. "You also have a junior in forward Brandon Johns. Experience helps in a lot of ways — they understand it's early in the season, and you're going to have some highs and lows." There haven't been many lows yet, though a backloaded schedule will be tough to navigate without a few set- backs. And while each victory it's nice, they haven't let them go to their heads. "Our goal is to be the last team standing in April on Monday," How- ard added. "We have to find areas where we can get better. We under- stand we have areas where we have had some slippage; we understand that film is some of our best teaching tools." There's been no pressure, just fun, he continued, noting that's the way it should be. They're just happy to be able to play given the pandemic, which caused a two-week shutdown of all athletic programs at Michigan, begin- ning Jan. 23 immediately after they rose to No. 4 nationally from No. 7. They'll be back on the court at some point, likely after Feb. 7, and there will be games to be made up. They're all healthy and eager to play, based on their social media accounts, and there could well be banners in their future if they continue to stay out of harm's way and play with the same intensity they have all season. Through 14 games, they'd shown no signs of slowing down. ❏ Michigan's Biggest Big Ten Title Threats Michigan's impressive first half of the Big Ten schedule had the Wolverines atop the Big Ten standings at 8-1 and ranked No. 4 nationally heading into February. The athletic campus shutdown slowed the momentum and put a major question mark on the season going forward, but there was hope Juwan Howard's team would continue Feb. 7 and pick up where it left off. As of Jan. 26, Michigan was considered the favorite to win the title. Here are our choices as their main competition: 1. IOWA (12-3 overall, 6-2 Big Ten as of Jan. 26): Fran McCaffrey's team is do- ing what his teams usually do — play outstanding offense and not very good de- fense, winning impressively at times and dropping occasional games it shouldn't. On the latter, the biggest head-scratcher came Jan. 21 in an 81-69 home loss to an Indiana team that stood 9-7 overall, 4-5 in Big Ten play and followed up its up- set victory with a home loss to a then 7-6 Rutgers team that had been struggling. The Hawkeyes ranked No. 1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, de- scribed as the estimate of the offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 posses- sions) a team would have against the average D-I defense, as of Jan. 26 but 99th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They have a tough schedule down the stretch, however, having to face Wisconsin twice, two more games with Ohio State, and road games at Illinois and Michigan. 2. WISCONSIN (12-4, 6-3): Many wrote the Badgers off after a blowout loss at Michigan in which they trailed by as many as 40, but Greg Gard's team is senior- laden and experienced. They win with their defense (No. 7 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency) but can make shots, too — four regulars are 37 percent or better from long range, and they have a point guard in D'Mitrik Trice who is one of the clutch performers in the conference. The Badgers have a bad home loss to Maryland on their résumé, and their second-half schedule isn't easy. They still play Illinois and Iowa twice each, and also have to go to Maryland and Purdue in addition to getting U-M at home. 3. ILLINOIS (10-5, 6-3): The Illini were one of the Big Ten's preseason favorites behind center Kofi Cockburn and wing Ayo Dosunmu, but they've also been spo- radic. They lost at Rutgers and were down 14 at Northwestern before rallying for a blowout win. They followed that up with a perplexing home loss to a Maryland team that has struggled to a 3-6 conference record. But Brad Underwood's team has great potential and balance. They were ninth overall in the rankings as of Jan. 26 with the No. 8 adjusted offen- sive efficiency ranking and No. 23 adjusted defensive efficiency. They weren't getting enough from their complements, however — beyond Dosunmu (21.7 PPG) and Cockburn (17.4), nobody was averaging double-digit points. In addi- tion, the remaining schedule includes two games with Wisconsin and contests at U-M, Minnesota and Ohio State. 4. OHIO STATE (12-4, 6-4): The Buckeyes are only 2.5 games back after 10 games and have their toughest remaining contests at home other than a tilt at Iowa (though they also travel to Michigan State Feb. 25 — the Spartans were only 2-4 due to COVID cancellations as of Jan. 26 and were somewhat of an enigma, but not expected to compete for a title). Michigan, Iowa and Illinois all have to play at Value City Arena on the back half of the schedule, and the Buckeyes' meeting with U-M will be its only one of the year. Offense is what makes this team dangerous. Though the Bucks rank only 61st in adjusted defensive efficiency, they're No. 12 overall in the rankings because of their No. 5 adjusted offensive efficiency ranking. — Chris Balas

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