An early shock in the young college basketball season happened just outside of Philadelphia last night, as the Michigan Wolverines went to Villanova and absolutely crushed the defending national champions, winning 73-46 in a rematch of last April’s title game. It’s extremely early in the year, and both of these teams had only played cupcakes before Wednesday, but still: goddamn this was an impressive win for a young Michigan group that was mostly flying under the radar as the season began.
First, though, the obvious—this game was a title game rematch in name only. Michigan lost three of its most crucial offensive pieces this summer, with Moe Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and Duncan Robinson all going pro. Even more dramatically, Nova’s recovering from the departures of All-American Jalen Brunson, Final Four MOP Donte DiVincenzo, Big East tournament MVP Mikal Bridges, and Big East Freshman of the Year Omari Spellman. Eric Paschall and Phil Booth return as senior leaders, but this was a Villanova team expected to merely contend for a deepish tournament run, not actually repeat as champs.
Even so, the Wildcats were the clear favorites heading into Wednesday’s game, and they got absolutely smoked right from the start. Michigan led wire to wire, and an incredible 44-17 first half ended the game within 20 minutes. It was a stunning performance, particularly on defense, where the ’Cats as a whole only shot 31.8 percent from the field and coughed the ball up 21 times. The only Villanova guy in double figures was Paschall, who got 10 points but shot a horrendous 3-for-14.
Continuing the transition started last season, which was mainly credited to the arrival of assistant coach Luke Yaklich from Illinois State, John Beilein’s Michigan has transformed itself from a team traditionally reliant on great shooting into a squad that dominates with its defense. Despite the roster turnover, it appears they didn’t miss a step this year. Seven-foot-one center Jon Teske—now a starter—still has to grow into an offensive game but has a clear physical advantage as a rim protector, and sixth man Isaiah Livers gives the team a powerful small-ball alternative at the five. Point guard Zavier Simpson, meanwhile, has his struggles as a shooter but pesters his opponents nonstop, endearing himself to fans with hard-edged hustle.
The emergent star of the Villanova game, however, was the Canadian-by-way-of-Lithuania freshman Ignas “Iggy” Brazdeikis, who picked up 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting at the power forward spot. Brazdeikis was the most efficient player on the floor, controlling the paint to grab offensive rebounds, slam home put-backs, and hit pretty lay-ups. Depending on how much consistency the high-usage ex-Kentucky Wildcat Charles Matthews can find, Iggy and his mature combination of athleticism, strength, and smarts may quickly become Michigan’s go-to guy on offense.
Michigan is certainly no Duke, but their early-season statement win emphasizes that they still need to be taken just as seriously as any other top-tier Big Ten team. The Wolverines will vie with Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and a resurgent Indiana to try and win their first Big Ten regular season title since 2014. Who knows if they’ll end up on top, but in the early going they look better than anyone could have thought.