'Underrated' Michigan looks to make statement in stacked Battle 4 Atlantis
Ann Arbor — Michigan is packed up and eager to see where it stacks up.
While most people will be with family and friends on Thanksgiving, the Wolverines will be spending the holiday with some of the top teams in the nation at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in Nassau, Bahamas.
“It's going to be a business trip. It's that simple,” coach Juwan Howard said after the team’s win over Houston Baptist last week. “Yes, Bahamas is Bahamas and what a beautiful vacation spot for many. But we're approaching it like we're going to take care of business one game at a time.”
That means hanging out at the beach and soaking up the sun at the Paradise Island oceanside resort isn’t high on the agenda. What is, though, is making a splash and sending a message that Michigan isn’t a team that should be overlooked.
The Wolverines, who have been unranked all season, will have the stage to do it against arguably the most formidable early-season tournament field in all of college basketball.
They will kick things off at noon Wednesday against Iowa State (3-1) and sophomore guard Tyrese Haliburton, a projected first-round NBA Draft pick who leads the nation in assists (10.3) and ranks No. 8 in steals (3.5) per game.
Waiting in the next round will be No. 6 North Carolina or Alabama. The Tar Heels (4-0) are led by freshman sensation Cole Anthony, who set a program record with 34 points in his debut and ranks No. 11 in the nation in scoring (22.8 points per game). The Crimson Tide (2-2) play at one of the fastest paces in the nation under former Romulus High coach Nate Oats and talented sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr., but rank among the worst teams at taking care of the ball (20.5 turnovers per game).
The Wolverines will wrap things up against one of the other four teams on the other side of the bracket — No. 8 Gonzaga, No. 11 Oregon, No. 13 Seton Hall or Southern Miss — meaning they possibly could face two top-13 teams over a 48-hour period.
“You've got to earn people's respect,” junior forward Isaiah Livers said. “They don't think you're good, you go show them that you're good.
“No disrespect to Houston Baptist and teams like Elon. Those are great competitors, but they're not nationally ranked. So, going against UNC, Alabama, Iowa State, teams like that that they're known, they're going to come in with confidence. They're trying to show people just like we are."
Running the table and joining Wisconsin as the only Big Ten teams to win the eight-team event since its inception in 2011 will be quite the challenge. (The last two winners of the Battle 4 Atlantis went on to win the national title: Villanova two seasons ago and Virginia last year).
Michigan will be in a different atmosphere and away from the cozy confines of Crisler Center for the first time all season. The younger Wolverines will get their first taste of life on the road, while Howard and his staff will have to handle game planning, scouting and creating a schedule to get the team as prepared as possible during quick turnarounds.
On top of that, Michigan is still not at full strength with freshman wing Franz Wagner (wrist) on the mend. Roommate and freshman guard Cole Bajema said Wagner is “rehabbing really well and doing a lot better,” so it’s possible he could make his debut during the tropical trip.
“We could prove to ourselves that we're one of the (top) teams out there,” Bajema said. “It's not going to be easy with three games in a row. It's a lot on your body, but we should be good. We're ready to go.”
Sophomore center Colin Castleton said he expects Michigan to be tested in all aspects by the tougher competition — “defense and rebounding are probably the two main things,” he added — while Livers said the key to succeed will be to lock in defensively.
Yet, the Wolverines aren’t short on confidence or good vibes heading into the tournament. Their winning margin has increased over the first four games and they’re coming off a blowout win where several players set career highs in points (Livers 24, Castleton 14 and Adrien Nunez eight) and assists (Zavier Simpson 14 and Eli Brooks seven).
"I'm looking for our group to be a competitive group,” Howard said. “It's beautiful when you go on the road. It really helps your team form that mental toughness as well as that togetherness. I think that's a perfect opportunity for us and a perfect time where we can bond, get to know one another.
“Our goal is to take it one game at a time. We know every opponent that we're going to face is good, just like the opponents we've faced at home.”
And Michigan knows if it wants to make a statement, this is the perfect time and place to do it.
“We're big-time underrated,” Livers said. “We've got a chance to let the world know in the Bahamas.”
Battle 4 Atlantis
At Imperial Arena, Nassau, Bahamas
All times EST
►Game 1: Michigan vs. Iowa State, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
►Game 2: North Carolina vs. Alabama, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2)
►Game 3: Gonzaga vs. Southern Miss, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
►Game 4: Seton Hall vs. Oregon, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
►Game 5: Michigan-Iowa State winner vs. North Carolina-Alabama winner, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2)
►Game 6: Gonzaga-Southern Miss winner vs. Seton Hall-Oregon winner, 4 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2)
►Game 7: Michigan-Iowa State loser vs. North Carolina-Alabama loser, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2 or ESPNU)
►Game 8: Gonzaga-Southern Miss loser vs. Seton Hall-Oregon loser, 9 p.m. (ESPN2)
►Third-place game: Game 5 loser vs. Game 6 loser, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN or ESPN2)
►Championship: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
►Fifth-place game: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN2 or ESPNU)
►Seventh-place game: Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPNEWS)