Michigan's transition into life without former Wooden Award winner Trey Burke should have included more hurdles. Entering the season, Derrick Walton Jr. had been unfairly pegged as the heir to fill Burke's size impossible shoes. Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary were back from last season's Final Four team, but Burke carried the Wolverines to Atlanta.
Still, John Beilein had the pieces to compete for a Big Ten title. When McGary's back problems snowballed into season-ending surgery, however, those dreams should have been squashed.
But they weren't.
Beilein's squad is on top of the Big Ten now, despite everything it has lost since that Final Four run, as it prepares to face No. 17 Iowa on Saturday (2 ET, ESPN). Nik Stauskas is the Big Ten's player of the year. Robinson and Caris LeVert are pivotal components of No. 10 Michigan's success, too. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford aren't superstars, but they're respectable.
They're not the biggest team in the land, but Michigan's high-powered offense (third in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) has its "disadvantages" as an advantage. The Wolverines are difficult to guard because they're led by players who stretch the floor and create mismatches, especially on fast breaks and in space.
Their defense is still a work in progress, though. The Wolverines allowed a Michigan State team that competed without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson to score 1.19 points per possession in their win over their in-state rivals on Jan. 22. But they've given up 63.9 PPG in Big Ten play, second in the league.
Defensive discipline will be the key in Michigan's matchup in Iowa City on Saturday. The Hawkeyes have lost three of five, largely because of their own defensive deficiencies. But their offense (sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) has struggled during this slide, too. The Hawkeyes scored only 1.01 PPP in their loss to Ohio State on Tuesday. They recorded 1.01 PPP in a loss to Michigan State last week. In their Jan. 22 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Hawkeyes managed 1.02 PPP. They made just 20 percent of their 3-point attempts in that loss.
In a game between two of the top offensive units in America on Saturday, defense shouldn't be overlooked. Both the Wolverines and Hawkeyes have had challenges on that end of the floor this season. They possess flashy offenses. So it could be a high-scoring game.
But defensive stops will matter most.