The title of this article isn't hyperbole. Right now, it's a fact — Michigan is the best team in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are at the top of the conference at 5-0 in league play and are the only squad without a blemish on its record at 10-0 overall.
But it goes beyond that. Michigan has everything needed to win every night against anyone, and some of the key characteristics of Howard's team are starting to show up on a nightly basis regardless of opponent.
1. This team doesn't live and die by the three-pointer
John Beilein is a legendary Michigan coach, but we definitely saw his teams lose because they weren't hitting their outside shots from time to time. Under Howard and with freshman Hunter Dickinson dominating everyone he faces, Michigan does not have to depend on the three-ball, even though they can shoot it. The Wolverines are shooting a respectable 36% from three, but it's not something they have to lean on for long stretches. Michigan is averaging a little over 21 three-point attempts per game. That's way down at No. 187 in the country. Throw in guys who are proficient at getting to the basket and knocking down mid-range jumpers like Chaundee Brown, Franz Wagner, Mike Smith and Isaiah Livers and you really have a great blend of scoring that works just as well on the road as it does at home.
2. The defense suffocates teams with length and connection
Wagner has really been a difference maker on defense because of his length on the wing. It's rare for a guard to stand 6-10, but that's Wagner. He's blocked 13 shots and changes even more when contesting. If Zavier Simpson was the head of the spear for U-M's defense in recent years, that title probably belongs to Wagner now.
It helps having a 7-1 center in the paint to protect the rim, too. Even though Dickinson isn't blocking a ton of shots (14 in 10 games), he's a presence in the paint and affects a lot of attempts just like Wagner does. Throw in 6-7 Isaiah Livers, 6-5 and jacked Chaundee Brown, springy, 6-8 backup Brandon Johns Jr. and super smart, super quick and lanky Eli Brooks and Michigan just has so many efficient pieces to succeed on the defensive end of the floor.
3. The chemistry cannot be understated
You see it on the floor, you see it on the bench, you see it between Howard and his guys, you see it between veterans like Brooks and Livers and you see it between familiar faces and the newcomers. The chemistry and closeness on Michigan's roster is palpable and it's obviously impacting the play on the floor.
The team has a great blend of savvy veterans and energetic youngsters and you really see it manifest on the bench during live action or after a big play. Michigan basketball is as fun to watch right now as it's been in a long time and that includes when Beilein's squads were making Final Fours.
4. There are balanced scorers and multiple initiators
Michigan has been led in scoring by Chaundee Brown, Isaiah Livers, Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner this year with the freshman doing it more than all of the others. That is a very promising development especially considering that the coaching staff wasn't sure about Dickinson's ceiling at the beginning of the year and Brown doesn't even start. Smith can get a bucket whenever he wants. Brooks is shooting it very well from the outside and has shown a burst and a level of explosiveness that we haven't really seen from him before. Backup center Brandon Johns Jr. almost always comes in and picks up a garbage bucket or two within a couple minutes. There are so many different weapons and anyone can get it going on any given night.
The same can be said as far as running the show is concerned. Smith is the point guard and the man with the plan — that's undeniable — but Wagner, Livers, Brown and Brooks are all more than capable and comfortable pushing the ball on the break, initiating the offense or dumping it into Dickinson. Positionless basketball is definitely a thing these days and Michigan has the kinds of versatile players to make it work regardless of the set and lineup.
This is really outlined in point No. 4, but it goes beyond that. Johns Jr. is only playing about 11 minutes per game, but he showed last year that he can start and succeed while Livers was out. Even Adrian Nunez, who's only playing three minutes per game, has started before. If you had to throw him out there in a pinch, he wouldn't be shell shocked. Freshmen Terrance Williams and Zeb Jackson have shown that they can come in and soak up some minutes if necessary. Finally, Austin Davis is likely going to return at some point. When he does, you have another veteran starter who Howard trusts implicitly, and who showed early that he's good for a quick 10 points and five boards if he gets some significant run. Being able to play 10 guys (11 if you count Nunez) is extremely rare in college basketball. Howard's rotation will revolve around eight guys when Davis is back, but he really could throw 11 different bodies out there and not freak out.
My conclusion could also really be a sixth point — the team is fully aware of the five points above and is playing with a scary level of confidence because of it. Being 10-0 also doesn't hurt. Not only is the team laced with veterans who know what Juwan Howard is doing is legitimate because they've seen both sides of the coin, everyone is seeing definitive results on the court in the form of a 10-0 start.
A deep, athletic, good-shooting, close-knit and confident team is a scary team. That's exactly what Michigan is.