This is the Michigan we thought we'd see -- so are we about to see more?
If you face Michigan the game after your biggest win of the season, prepare for a demolition.
Riding high after a blowout win over Illinois that created a 3-way tie for first place in the Big Ten, Purdue was laid low by Michigan, 82-58, just 48 hours later.
It’s not the only time this year that the Wolverines have sprung this trap.
A couple of weeks back, Indiana was on Cloud 9 after beating the Boilermakers for the first time since 2016. The very next game, Michigan stormed into Assembly Hall and drilled the Hoosiers by 18 points. It was Indiana’s first home loss all season.
This is what these Wolverines do.
They’ll probably get another chance to do something like it. On Feb. 27, Illinois visits Ann Arbor a game after facing Ohio State — a game which could potentially put the Fighting Illini in near-total control of the Big Ten.
So, exactly where Michigan wants them.
The problem for Michigan is that these games have been the only times where the Wolverines have resembled the team that entered the season ranked 6th in the country. As a result, there is still yeoman’s work to be done if they are actually going to reach the NCAA Tournament.
But did Thursday night ever provide hope that such a feat is possible.
Hunter Dickinson’s helpers step up
It is unfair to characterize the Wolverines completely as a 1-man show.
Center Hunter Dickinson almost always leads the way, to be certain. That was again the case against Purdue, when he capitalized on early foul trouble for Boilers center Zach Edey and flexed his height advantage over 6-10 Trevion Williams.
Dickinson had perhaps his best performance of the season alongside the win over Indiana, demonstrating precisely why NBA scouts were so high on him heading into the season. He has more of a hybrid game than the Big Ten’s other massively talented bigs.
Dickinson slipped outside to hit 4-for-6 3-point attempts on his way to 22 points. He did what you expect a big man to do with 9 rebounds and 2 blocks. But he also had 4 assists and 3 steals — a stat line you might expect from a wing or even a point guard.
Eli Brooks is usually Michigan’s No. 2 guy behind Dickinson. That was again the case Thursday. Brooks was 7-of-8 from the field, including a sterling 4-for-4 from 3-point range, in an 18-point performance.
The issue for Michigan has been getting a consistent enough third man to contribute.
Far too much early expectation was placed on freshman Caleb Houstan, who was named to the preseason all-conference team before playing a game in college. And because he’s still adjusting to the college game, like freshmen were once expected to when they stuck around 3 or 4 years, that search has been ongoing for most of the season.
Against Purdue, the Wolverines had 3 guys become that third option.
Houstan was among them, hitting 4 3-pointers and finishing with 14 points. Forward Moussa Diabate was another with 15 points. And point guard DeVante’ Jones kept the whole thing rolling with 10 points and 11 assists.
It was an exercise in total team basketball, which is what we saw from the Wolverines last season. That expectation carried into this year.
Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect it right away. Franz Wagner, Mike Smith and Isaiah Livers were a tad underappreciated by the media outside of Ann Arbor from the looks of it.
Against Purdue, expectation finally met reality. For the first time all season, all 5 Michigan starters scored in double figures.
Now comes the crucial question — is this the start of something, or did the Wolverines just catch a team coming in with a wicked hangover?
A viable path to the bubble lies ahead
To the naked eye, Michigan has a near-identical NCAA Tournament resume to B1G counterpart Rutgers.
The lone difference is the Scarlet Knights have played 1 more game, and are 14-9 and 8-5 in league play compared to Michigan’s mark of 13-9 and 7-5.
Even though both programs have uphill climbs to March, Michigan’s comes with a much gentler gradient. Because they are 8-1 against teams in Quads 3 and 4 of the NCAA NET rankings, the Wolverines sit at 47th overall in the NET.
Certainly outside the bubble, but within peering distance.
Rutgers, on the other hand, is 91st. That’s a byproduct of being 8-3 against Quad 3 and 4 opponents, including a Quad-4 loss against Lafayette.
If the Wolverines can claw their way to 18-12 overall heading into the Big Ten tournament, they’ll give themselves a chance regardless of what happens in Indianapolis. And they’ll probably need to.
Depth is a concern if the Wolverines have any shot at winning 4 games in 4 days. Just as Michigan’s strengths were on display against Purdue, so was 1 of its weaknesses. The Wolverines scored 2 bench points, and the regular rotation is pretty much 7-deep at this point.
It would behoove Michigan to take care of business as much as possible before the end of the regular season.
Given what we witnessed against the Big Ten’s best team, that might not be a pipe dream.