Despite rapid rise, No. 4 Michigan keeps even keel as top-ranked Louisville awaits

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach Juwan Howard received a call from one of his sons on Monday.

The news? The Wolverines made a meteoric and historic rise in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, going from a team that was unranked a week ago to one that was ranked No. 4 in the country.

Head coach Juwan Howard has Michigan off to a 7-0 start and ranked No. 4 in the country.

It’s the result of Michigan ripping off three wins in three days in the Bahamas last week, highlighted by back-to-back victories over top-10 teams North Carolina and Gonzaga, to take home the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament title.

And that triumphant trip has set the stage for a top-4 showdown at No. 1 Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

“At the end of the day, it's early. Championships are not won now,” Howard said. “Yes, we won a championship during Thanksgiving play, but the NCAA championship is in April. You can't get there yet until you start playing the Big Ten tournament. We have many goals to go out there and try to achieve. That's just one that we accomplished.”

The next goal is to join the growing list of teams who have knocked off the top-ranked squad this season. Duke, last week’s No. 1, lost the top spot when it was upset at home by Stephen F. Austin on a buzzer-beating layup. Before the Blue Devils, Michigan State and Kentucky had short stays at the top before they lost their reign.

In order to do so, the Wolverines will need to snap an 11-game losing streak against top-ranked opponents dating back to 2000. Michigan has just two wins against the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 in program history, with the last victory coming against Duke, 81-73, on Dec. 13, 1997.

But with the way things have been clicking for Michigan (7-0), the Wolverines have shown they are capable of swatting the Cardinals off their perch and recording a third straight win over a top-10 foe.

“Just seeing how the summer and spring was going, I could just tell how many weapons we had, how balanced we are as a team, how connected we are,” sophomore guard David DeJulius said. “I didn't know how the Bahamas was going to go, but most definitely I'm not surprised how it turned out.

"If we play together then we can be really, really good. We had confidence going into the season, but we didn't really see how good we could've been until (last week). I feel like we all have that confidence, have all cylinders firing like we did in the Bahamas then we'll be a tough team to beat."

The same applies for Louisville. The Cardinals (7-0) have won six games by at least 13 points, are 5-0 at home with an average win margin of 22.6 points and are led by preseason All-American Jordan Nwora, a junior forward who ranks in the top 20 in the nation in scoring at 21.9 points per game.

They also have been shooting the ball as well as the Wolverines. Louisville's offense ranks No. 6 nationally in field-goal percentage (51.9 percent), No. 18 in 3-point shooting (40.8 percent) and tied for No. 27 in scoring (81.7 points), which will provide quite the challenge in Michigan’s first true road game of the season.

“It'll be a different vibe to us, but Coach Howard and Coach (Phil) Martelli talk about you're going into a lion's den so be ready,” DeJulius said. “We feel like this is a good challenge for us. This is a great game that will help us in our efforts and reaching our goals of winning a championship.”

According to Howard, the keys will be limiting Louisville’s points in transition, defending the 3-point line and keeping the Cardinals off the offensive glass. And as good as Michigan looked last week, Howard added there’s still room for improvement on defense, rebounding and sharing the basketball on offense.

While Michigan’s ranking is a form of validation, Howard isn’t concerned it will become a distraction for a veteran-led team that has played in no shortage of marquee games and raucous arenas. And neither is DeJulius, who noted the team’s “recipe to winning” is to maintain the same mindset and approach he saw in the Bahamas.

“These guys, it's crazy. It feels like it's no pressure toward them,” DeJulius said. “You just go in the locker room and it's like, 'Yeah, we've got this. We're good.' That does a lot for confidence for me because I'm looking at guy like Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske, Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks, guys that are a year or two ahead of me and just seeing how comfortable they are in moments like this. When I have teammates like that beside me, what do I need to be nervous for?"

Apparently not much when a team is on a roll quite like Michigan is.

“We just have to go in there and handle our business,” Teske said. “Yeah, they're ranked No. 1 and we’ve already played the Nos. 6 (North Carolina) and 8 (Gonzaga) teams in the country, but we've just got to do our job. We're confident right now.

“A lot of people weren't talking about us when we were unranked and now a lot of people are talking about us right now. We've just got to stay level-headed and stay focused on what's ahead and that's Louisville.”

Michigan at Louisville

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.

TV/radio: ESPN/950 AM

Records: No. 4 Michigan 7-0, No. 1 Louisville 7-0

Line: Louisville by 5

Outlook: Michigan is 8-10 all-time in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and 2-24 all-time against Associated Press No. 1-ranked teams…This is the fifth meeting between the two programs and they have both been ranked in the top 25 each time.