The difference between Iowa being a good team and a legitimate Final Four contender shone through in January losses to Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State. The Hawkeyes’ combined margin of defeat in those games was 14 points. Iowa was playing good basketball. Its efficiency profile – top 10 offense, top 35 defense – indicated as much. But it wasn’t getting the wins it needed for validation.
A 10-point win at Ohio State on January 12 looked good at the time, but the Buckeyes got revenge this week by beating Iowa on its own floor. Doubts began to creep in. Skeptics ignored the numbers.
Iowa’s good, but it’s not winning! Who cares about its Kenpom ranking?
The Hawkeyes’ 85-67 win Saturday over Michigan should keep those criticisms at bay, at least until the next time Iowa plays.
The Hawkeyes beat the Wolverines in a way no other team has all season. Their offense was overwhelming, their defense swarming. They beat Michigan to loose balls and, with a frenzied Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd at their backs, built up so much momentum in the second half, it almost seemed impossible that the Wolverines could make a comeback.
They didn’t. The final score, 85-67, indicates the extent of the beatdown Michigan absorbed. This game indicates Iowa's well-rounded strength, not Michigan’s apparent regression. The Hawkeyes were disjointed on offense, and more permissive than usual on defense, in their 10-point loss to Ohio State on Tuesday. They looked re-energized against the Wolverines, like the team tempo-free enthusiasts often mention among the nation’s best.
Senior guard Roy Devyn Marble scored 26 points, sophomore point guard Mike Gessell put up 10 points and eight assists and junior forward Aaron White added eight points and 11 rebounds. Michigan got 22 points from sophomore guard Caris LeVert and 19 from freshman guard Zak Irvin off the bench, but three starters (senior forward Jordan Morgan, sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III and freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr.) combined for just seven points.
It will take more than this win for Iowa, now alone in third place with a 7-4 conference record, to convince people it is capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. One triumph does not outweigh the spate of close losses that came before it. But if Iowa can use Saturday’s performance as a launching pad for a strong finish to the regular season, there will be no doubt about what it’s capable of come selection Sunday.
Iowa will get a few more opportunities to prove itself in tough games. It hosts Wisconsin on Feb. 22, and plays at Minnesota on Feb. 25 and at Michigan State on March 6. A Feb. 18 game at Indiana won’t be easy, either. But the Hawkeyes are good enough to navigate their final seven games favorably. Saturday’s win showed why.
It also showed the Wolverines are not the indomitable offensive force their eight-game winning streak to open conference play suggested they were. In consecutive road trips to Indiana and Iowa, the Wolverines’ high-powered attack has not been able to overcome their defensive shortcomings. It scored 0.95 points per possession against the Hoosiers but yielded 1.15; scored 1.05 against the Hawkeyes but yielded 1.33. Big Ten player of the year candidate Nik Stauskas has looked mortal, scoring six points on 1-of-6 shooting against Indiana and 10 on 3-of-6 against Iowa. And the praise John Beilein received for his schematic wizardry – his ability to seemingly re-invent Michigan’s offense on the fly after it lost center Mitch McGary to injury – has ebbed.
The Wolverines will need to identify what hasn’t worked during their past two road games and make adjustments. On Saturday, Michigan seemed almost overwhelmed by Iowa’s offensive onslaught, and it couldn't manufacture enough offense to make up the difference. Much of the credit goes to Iowa, though this certainly wasn’t the Wolverines’ best effort. Michigan has lost two of three, but it lost three of five in November and December, and followed that up by winning 10 straight games. Doing that against a Big Ten schedule is unlikely, but Michigan can play well enough over the next month to steady itself before the postseason. This is a brief funk Beilein should be able to help his team break out of.