February 24, 2021

Big Blue: Is Michigan Just as Good as Baylor and Gonzaga?

If there’s one thing that’s become abundantly clear during the college basketball season, it’s that the Baylor Bears and Gonzaga Bulldogs are a level or two above the rest of the country.

Between their undefeated record, their spot at the top of the polls, and the all-important eye test, there’s no denying that the Bears and Bulldogs are special. They are easily the two leading favorites to win the national championship, and anyone would be foolish to say otherwise.

However, is it possible that there’s a third team who belongs in the same category Baylor and Gonzaga? Have we been overlooking the Michigan Wolverines this whole time? Does Michigan deserve to be considered a clear-cut national championship contender on the same level as Baylor and Gonzaga?

With March Madness right around the corner, it’s a topic worth exploring.

The Record

It’s impossible not to be impressed by Michigan’s 16-1 record this season.

Obviously, with Baylor and Gonzaga remaining undefeated deep into February, they draw more attention, as the Wolverines can’t claim to still be among the nation’s unbeaten teams. Juwan Howard’s team has gone 11-1 in what is undoubtedly the best and deepest conference in the country. There are currently three Big Ten teams outside of Michigan taking up residence inside the top-10 with as many as 10 teams projected to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

To date, the only blemish on Michigan’s record is a road loss to Minnesota. The Gophers were ranked at the time but are now very much on the bubble. It’s more than understandable for the Wolverines to experience a slip-up.

Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that Baylor and Gonzaga have avoided such a fate.

On the other hand, every other team in the top 25 except Baylor, Gonzaga, and Michigan has at least three losses. In fact, only Villanova, Houston, and Florida State have fewer than four losses, putting the Wolverines closer to Baylor and Gonzaga than the rest of the pack.

The Comeback

Perhaps the most impressive part of Michigan’s season was how the Wolverines returned from a three-week hiatus due to COVID-19 concerns on the Michigan campus. Most teams that have experienced a prolonged shutdown this season have come back sluggish, needing at least one or two games to get back up to speed. With Michigan’s layoff lasting longer than what most other teams experienced, we expected Howard’s team to suffer similar issues.

However, nothing could be further from the truth.

In their first game back after more than three weeks away, the Wolverines needed only one half to get back into the flow of things. After trailing by 12 points at halftime against a top-25 Wisconsin team, Michigan outscored the Badgers by 20 points in the second half to earn a comfortable win.

The Wolverines have followed up that win with wins over Rutgers and a top-5 Ohio State team in what is the most impressive return to action by a team that has gone more than two weeks between games at some point this season.

The Expectations

One of the reasons that pundits may have been reluctant to put Michigan in the same category as Baylor and Gonzaga was the team’s preseason expectations. The Bulldogs and Bears began the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the country, respectively. Both had the highest of preseason expectations and have more than lived up to them.

Meanwhile, the Wolverines were ranked No. 25 when they played their season opener. They expected to be a good but not great team, leaving them with a lot more to prove than Baylor and Gonzaga. Michigan also didn’t score any quality wins during the early part of the regular season.

To date, the Wolverines have beaten just four teams that were ranked at the time, including Northwestern, who now sits toward the bottom of the Big Ten standings. While Gonzaga and Baylor proved themselves against top-ranked teams, including some of Michigan’s top competitors in the Big Ten, the Wolverines have slowly gained attention because of their volume of wins rather than the quality of their wins.

The Eye Test

Two wins over Wisconsin and their recent win over Ohio State have given the Wolverines a few marquee wins. More importantly, Michigan has passed the eye test in those games, as well as their blowouts of inferior teams.

The three-headed monster of Isaiah Livers, Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner is as good as any trio in the country. Livers has been a consistent scoring presence all season. Dickinson has been better than expected and gives the Wolverines an inside scoring presence. Finally, the 6-foot-9 Wagner might create more defensive mismatches than any other player in the country.

But the Wolverines are far more than those three players. In their recent win over Ohio State, Chaundee Brown, Mike Smith, and Eli Brooks all scored in double figures, showcasing Michigan’s depth. Brown has averaged double figures in each of the last two seasons and can step up when called upon this season in a complementary role. Smith runs the offense and dishes out 5.4 assists per game. He’s also been happy to take a back seat after averaging 22.8 points per game last season. Like Brown and Smith, Brooks is also a senior who is an underrated scorer who brings experience to the table in a complementary role.

In addition to their offensive prowess, the Wolverines are one of the best defensive teams in the country. The size of Dickinson, Wagner, and Austin Davis, who is yet another senior, Michigan is one of the best teams at protecting the rim and preventing teams from getting easy baskets in the paint.

On the season, the Wolverines are conceding just 66 points per game. While that doesn’t quite measure up to Baylor’s 63 points per game, it’s better than Gonzaga, who gives up 69 points per game despite playing a less challenging conference schedule than both Baylor and Michigan.

The Final Verdict

Based on all of the evidence available in the Wolverines' 17 games this season, it’s time to put Michigan side by side with Baylor and Gonzaga as the three (not two) national champion candidates who sit above the rest of the pack. The only differences between Michigan and the other two teams at the top are preseason expectations that had the Wolverines further down the pecking order and a solitary loss to a solid Minnesota team.

In every other aspect, Michigan has proven to be equal to Baylor and Gonzaga. They’ve won games, beaten quality teams, and possess a considerable amount of both NBA-caliber talent and depth, passing the eye test with flying colors. Just for good measure, the Wolverines endured a three-week hiatus and came back stronger than before.

We can now say without hesitation that the fight to the national championship appears to be a three-team race among Baylor, Gonzaga, and Michigan. 

Photo: Getty Images