How Michigan basketball solved Iowa star center Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes' offense

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Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·5 min read
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Juwan Howard prides himself on being a defensive-minded coach.

So even though Michigan basketball won at Ohio State on Sunday, Howard wasn't wholly pleased with his team's performance, considering the Wolverines allowed a season-worst 87 points and 1.30 points per possession.

Normally, Howard shows the defensive numbers to his players the day after the game. But after the win over the Buckeyes, he decided to switch things up.

“I held it in my back pocket until the time I felt it was right to inspire a better defensive effort than what we gave against Ohio State,” Howard said Thursday night. “Not taking anything away from Ohio State, they’re a really good team. I just felt defensively that we got more into scoring than we did into getting stops.

Michigan guard Franz Wagner and Iowa center Luka Garza battle for the loose ball during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
Michigan guard Franz Wagner and Iowa center Luka Garza battle for the loose ball during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

“I showed film, they all owned it, it was great to see they had their mind made up, the players had their mind made up that we had to give a better defensive performance tonight versus Iowa, who’s an excellent offensive team. If we don’t, then we’re gonna have some sad faces after the game.”

Fortunately for Howard, there weren't any sad faces in his locker room Thursday night.

HUNTER'S HOUSE: Dickinson goes inside matchup with Iowa's Luka Garza

THE PLAN: Martelli: We can't beat Iowa if we don't play defense

BIG FRIENDS: For one night, Dickinson must put aside friendship with Garza

In a dominating 79-57 win over No. 12 Iowa, Michigan held the nation's top-ranked offense to its worst game of the season. The Hawkeyes averaged 0.85 points per possession, according to KenPom.com. Star center Luka Garza, the nation's leading scorer entering the game, tallied just 16 points on 6-for19 shooting.

The Wolverines scored key baskets in the second half and were propelled by a season-high 21 points from Franz Wagner. But it was their defense that led the way.

“Oh, you know coach Howard wasn’t playing about that,” Isaiah Livers said. “He (doesn't) play about that defensive end. Yeah, we came out of Columbus with a 'W,' but our defense numbers were terrible. I'm gonna be honest with you guys. We went over them, we all just looked at each other and shook our heads. 'Cause that’s not us.

“We knew Iowa coming in Thursday, today, was gonna come into our house, highest-scoring Big Ten team, and we knew it was the perfect challenge. It felt like it was set up this way on purpose for us to prove ourselves and we took the challenge. Everybody who checked in, even the guys on the bench, took the challenge. Scout team gave it to us every day during the week to get us ready for this team. And they did a great job. We stayed disciplined, that’s how our defense works. We all trust one another.”

For most teams, Iowa's offense presents a conundrum. Defend Garza one-on-one, and he has the ability to score at will and draw fouls. Send help, and the Hawkeyes (who were averaging 40.3% from 3-point range entering Thursday) will bomb you from outside.

Michigan center Hunter Dickinson defends Iowa center Luka Garza during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
Michigan center Hunter Dickinson defends Iowa center Luka Garza during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Michigan's plan was simple, according to Livers. They would not try to double Garza down low, instead relying upon Hunter Dickinson (and their backup centers) to guard him one-on-one.

While Dickinson has known Garza for years and worked out with him in Maryland this past offseason, it didn't seem likely the freshman would get the best of a savvy veteran who is the favorite to be named Big Ten Player of the Year.

Yet that's what happened.

When Dickinson was in the game, Garza shot just 3-for-14 while committing two turnovers. He was 1-for-9 shooting in the first half and was blocked twice by Dickinson, who set the tone early by stopping Garza's first three attempts to score (a blocked shot, missed layup and held ball).

When he spoke with reporters after the game, Dickinson criticized certain aspects of his own performance. Still, he recognized what he had just accomplished against Garza — and what it signaled for his growth as a defender.

“My footwork has definitely really grown under coach Howard on the defensive end,” Dickinson said. “In high school, being 7-1, 7-2, usually just staying behind him and playing solid (and) walling up is usually good enough, but especially in the Big Ten with guys like Luka, it’s not gonna be good enough if you just stand behind him. It’s usually gonna end up in a bucket.

Michigan forward Isaiah Livers makes a layup against  Iowa center Luka Garza during the second half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
Michigan forward Isaiah Livers makes a layup against Iowa center Luka Garza during the second half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

“Coach Howard definitely made that an emphasis in practice. Every time I tried to, in practice with Jaron (Faulds), when he would get me on his back, coach Howard stopped everything and would emphasize that it would be a bucket today if that happened. I tried to make it a point to not let that happen today, and I think I did a decent job.”

Because of Dickinson's success in the paint, Iowa's offense collapsed. The Hawkeyes shot just 6-for-19 from behind the arc and assisted on just four of 21 made field goals; entering Thursday, they had assisted on 63.4% of their makes, sixth-highest in the nation.

Considering the opponent, it was easily the Wolverines' best defensive performance of the season. And the Wolverines know their next post-game film session will be more pleasant than the previous one.

“We knew coming in they have a talented big man and terrific shooters around him,” Livers said. “We didn’t try to double team, I think we had one double team with me and Hunter, and Wieskamp got a layup off of it.

“Other than that, we followed the game plan, tried to give Hunter some gaps, some helps a little bit, but Hunter stayed solid for a freshman and I'm just very proud of him. Foul trouble comes with it, but he played very hard.”

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan basketball solved Iowa's Luka Garza and the Hawkeyes