The Michigan Wolverines moved to 11-0 this week, smothering a top-10 Wisconsin team 77-54 to get the attention of anyone who still might have been sleeping on Juwan Howard’s squad. Michigan, which is beating Big Ten opponents by an average of 15.5 points, next faces Minnesota (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2) as it tries to remain perfect. ESPN.com’s college basketball experts discussed the power of Big Blue, Kansas’ shaky place in the Big 12, and a bunch of other blue bloods whose inconsistent play raises questions about their 2021 NCAA tournament prospects.
Michigan is 11-0 and just annihilating opponents. Are you ready to say the Wolverines are going to win the Big Ten? Fill in this blank: Iowa and ____ are UM’s biggest two B1G threats.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Yes, I am ready to say that Michigan will win the national title … sorry, I mean, Big Ten title. I just think we’re watching one of the most balanced Big Ten teams in a long time. The Wolverines have the nation’s best defense inside the arc, per KenPom. They have legit NBA prospects in Hunter Dickinson, Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers. They have one single-digit win during this run. They’re the most dominant team in the country, east of Waco, Texas. They’re a threat to win the league and make a serious run at the national championship in Indianapolis, too.
I’ll go with Iowa and Illinois in the Big Ten. I think any opponent with a real shot at Michigan will have to possess the shooting ability to spread the floor and Illinois has connected on 41.2% of its 3-pointers thus far. But there is another reason to pick Illinois: Brad Underwood’s team plays Michigan and Iowa only once this season. The Jan. 29 home game against the Hawkeyes and the Feb. 11 road matchup against the Wolverines could change the Illini’s status in the Big Ten title race.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Michigan’s win over Wisconsin was one of the best single-game performances we’ve seen all season. I mean, a 36-3 run? Against a top-10 team? Are you kidding me? Juwan Howard is the favorite alongside Shaka Smart for National Coach of the Year honors, and the Wolverines have barely broken a sweat en route to their 11-0 record. They’re old, they’re versatile and they have one of the most unique and difficult matchups in the country in Dickinson. Recency bias is undoubtedly a factor, but I would peg Michigan as the Big Ten favorite, just ahead of Iowa. The Hawkeyes aren’t going anywhere, and they’re starting to show signs of life on the defensive end.
Wisconsin would be the easy answer for the next-biggest threat, simply due to the Badgers’ experience and number of players who can make shots. But I want to believe in Illinois as a title contender. The Fighting Illini have a truly elite inside-outside duo in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, and while it does feel like something is missing, there’s a lot of talent on this roster and eventually they’ll start winning some of these close games.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I am in full agreement with my esteemed colleagues: Michigan is going to win the Big Ten. Dickinson has been a revelation, Wagner is a matchup nightmare in his own right and the Wolverines have been far and away the best defensive team in the league to this point in the season. Put it this way, the Big Ten as a whole is making 50% of its 2s in conference play. Against Howard’s men, on the other hand, that number drops to under 38%. It’s been a magnificent performance.
In this same spirit of echoing my astute colleagues, UM’s two main threats really are Iowa and Illinois. The Illini would be more of a threat if not for that “2” in the loss column in conference play, but, on paper, Brad Underwood’s guys have achieved near-Michigan results on offense while laying claim to the prestigious title of “second-best defense in the league.” The Hawkeyes, of course, have the Big Ten’s best offense and a certain (likely) Wooden Award winner. Should be a fun title chase.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: The truth is that not even the Michigan coaching staff realized what it had in Hunter Dickinson. COVID-19 knocked him out of action in the fall and he wasn’t even a starter when the season began. These are the vagaries of a most unpredictable season. Having said that, Michigan is the best and most balanced team among a powerful Big Ten ruling class. The biggest challengers appear to be Illinois and Iowa, whom the Wolverines do not face until Feb. 11 and March 4, respectively.
Kansas has been a No. 1 seed candidate throughout this season to date but has also been crushed by Texas at home and just lost to Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Where do you have the Jayhawks finishing in the Big 12? What’s your biggest worry about KU?
Borzello: I would slot Kansas in at No. 3 in the Big 12. Baylor and Texas are legitimate national championship contenders, and every other team in the league has had issues. Texas Tech looked great in the second half against Texas, so maybe the Red Raiders’ offensive issues are over, but they’ve had problems at that end of the floor; West Virginia will have to continue to adjust to its smaller lineup without Oscar Tshiebwe; and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State aren’t quite there yet. It’s borderline stupid to write off Kansas as a Big 12 title contender because of the Jayhawks’ history (and they have beaten Creighton, Tech and WVU this season), but they look some distance below Baylor and Texas in the pecking order.
My biggest concern is just Kansas’ inconsistency from game to game. Last season, you knew where the Jayhawks’ production was coming from. It was Devon Dotson or Udoka Azubuike. This season, you barely know what the rotation is going to look like on a given night. Is David McCormack’s recent stretch a harbinger of things to come? Can Jalen Wilson return to his early-season form? Can Christian Braun find his outside shot again? There’s just a lot of questions.
Gasaway: My biggest concern with Kansas is that it’s mid-January and I still don’t know the game plan for the Jayhawks playing to the level we’re accustomed to seeing in Lawrence. This is a team that’s already played a third of its Big 12 schedule — we’ve seen exactly 400 possessions of basketball — and Bill Self’s guys are fairly close to the league average for both offense and defense. How does that change? What is the identity of this team?
Granted, KU has talent, Wilson clearly has promise and opponents have had a tough time making 2s against the Jayhawks. But the biggest challenge facing Kansas or any other Big 12 program outside of Waco, Texas, this season is that Baylor might be the best team the league has produced in years. Based on what I’ve seen thus far, Kansas is on track to finish No. 4 in the league, behind not only the Bears but also Texas and Texas Tech. The top of the Big 12 is loaded.
Medcalf: I can’t see Kansas finishing lower than third. We’ve been here before with Bill Self. The difference? Allen Fieldhouse is just another gym this year. Last year, a Big 12 coach told me he starts the season scratching off the game at Kansas as a loss “because you know you’re not going to win there.” That has been the Jayhawks’ insurance plan, enjoying one of the country’s great home-court advantages. Texas showed how things change with a limited crowd in a pandemic. Still, hard to imagine three or four teams finishing higher in the final standings.
The great concern is KU doesn’t have a guarantee. Can’t toss it to Udoka Azubuike or Thomas Robinson in the paint. No Frank Mason or Devonte’ Graham to get that big shot when you need it. The Jayhawks are closing games by committee, a challenging approach to this complicated season. All of this in a league with Jared Butler, Cade Cunningham, Miles McBride, Mac McClung, Andrew Jones and other talented stars who’ve proved they can be difference-makers. The path to a top-three finish for Kansas is challenging.
Lunardi: To my eyes, this Kansas team is just “regular” good (by its own very lofty standards). It is not elite in the way we are accustomed to seeing. From a strictly personnel standpoint, the Jayhawks trail Baylor, Texas and Texas Tech (and maybe West Virginia and Oklahoma State). The world will stop spinning before a Bill Self team finishes in the bottom half of the Big 12, but this is almost certainly not a conference championship season in Lawrence.
Place these former national title winners in order by their chances to get hot and reach the second, or third, weekend of the 2021 NCAA tournament: Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan State, Kentucky, UConn, UCLA — and defend the top team on your list.
Medcalf: Wow. What a list. Tough times for that entire group. But I’d go with Duke, UConn, Michigan State, North Carolina, Indiana, UCLA and Kentucky. UConn, Indiana and UCLA are all dealing with significant injuries that complicate their aspirations. Kentucky might be broken. Too many questions about Michigan State.
I think coaching will matter a lot in the final months of the season, so my ranking is based on the idea that Mike Krzyzewski has had multiple years where the Blue Devils weren’t the best ACC team in league play but still managed to compete in March. They’ve made 54% of their shots in ACC play and Jalen Johnson (four minutes against Virginia Tech this week) is working his way back into the rotation. At full strength, this team still has the highest ceiling on this list, in my opinion. Plus, do you really want to be the coach looking down the sideline and seeing Coach K and the Blue Devils as a 6- or 7-seed? That would mean they finished the season strong and reversed course entering the NCAA tournament. Underdog Duke sounds scary to me.
Borzello: Ooo spicy question. I dig it. I think there’s a few ways to approach this, because I don’t think it’s simply a ranking of the teams. Like, if I was ranking the teams based off today, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina would be at the bottom of my list because their floors are flat-out missing the NCAA tournament, but I also think their ceilings — on the off-chance they figure things out — are higher than those of some of the other teams on this list.
So I’ll roll with Michigan State, UConn, Indiana, North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Kentucky. And I couldn’t be less confident in that ranking. But I think Michigan State has the best combination of results (wins over Rutgers and Duke) that we’ve seen and ceiling that we could eventually see. A lot comes down to point guard play, and whether A.J. Hoggard is the answer and whether Tom Izzo can unlock Rocket Watts’ potential. But the Spartans are experienced and deep, plus they have Izzo and they’ll enter the NCAA tournament as battle-tested as anyone in the country. Kentucky isn’t likely to make the tournament, Duke and Carolina have too many things to work out, I have some concerns about Indiana’s and UCLA’s ceilings, and I’ll wait and see on UConn until James Bouknight returns.
Gasaway: First, I wish to be on the record as stating that the former national title winner most likely to cut down the nets this season is Michigan. Since the Wolverines weren’t included as an option, however, I will rank 2021 title chances for our coterie of sleeping legends thusly: UConn, Duke, Indiana, Michigan State, UCLA, Kentucky. Yes, this choice puts me way out on a limb. The Huskies have played just eight games this season, the team remains a bit of a mystery and now James Bouknight is sidelined “indefinitely” with an elbow injury. But UConn’s defense has looked feisty, and the program’s return to the Big East seems to be lifting spirits in Storrs.
Lunardi: Michigan State, based strictly on comparative rosters and player health, would be my choice from what is a simultaneously staggering and mediocre list. Duke would be my choice if we had a better prognosis for Jalen Johnson. Otherwise, my ranking would be Sparty, Duke, Indiana, UCLA, Kentucky and UConn. And, in addition to Michigan, there’s at least one other past champion ahead of them all. How quickly we forget Villanova!
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)