Michigan’s Defense is the Difference Between NCAA and NIT

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 23rd, 2017

It doesn’t take a hoops junkie to recognize that a good, balanced effort on both sides of the ball generally equates to success. And maybe it would be overly simplistic to offer an unbalanced team such advice as “be better on defense.” For this year’s Michigan squad, however, there may not be a more apt prescription. The Wolverines—the Big Ten’s most efficient offensive unit—simply haven’t had a defense to match this season, ranking dead-last in conference play on that end of the court. On nights when they have defended well, the offense has taken a step back. Put simply, the pieces have rarely come together. After an inspired wire-to-wire victory over Illinois on Saturday, however, John Beilein’s group appears to be taking some steps in the right direction. Michigan was stout defensively, received contributions up and down the lineup, and—for perhaps the first time since November—played a complete game against a quality opponent. With a crucial five-game stretch coming and an NCAA Tournament berth still far from guaranteed, the Wolverines’ newfound balance has arrived just in the nick of time.

On Saturday, Michigan looked like the team that pounded SMU and Marquette back in November. (mgoblue.com)

“Blue-collar” defense. Following Illinois’ 85-69 thrashing of Michigan on January 11, Illini center Maverick Morgan referred to the Wolverines as a “white-collar team,” a comment which—at least at the time—seemed completely on point. Due to a mixture of lax perimeter defense and some bad luck, Michigan entered the weekend surrendering an astounding 52.4 percent from three-point range (53-for-101) against Big Ten opponents, including a 9-of-14 effort against the Illini in that first meeting. On the whole, Beilein’s team after came into Saturday’s game surrendering more than 1.2 points per possession, and yet, on the heels of an encouraging effort at Wisconsin, the defensive tide shifted drastically. Michigan held Illinois to just 0-of-5 from three-point range in the first half, and 2-of-12 for the game. Illini ball-handlers were forced into a Big Ten-high 17 turnovers, and Morgan, who made all but one shot from the field in the first meeting, was held in check underneath the basket. “We were active, we were in gaps, swarming to the ball, flying around,” Beilein said after the game. “That was as hard as we’ve played on defense all year.” Before the weekend, Wolverines’ guard Zak Irvin lobbied his team to wear its road blue jerseys to represent the “blue-collar” attitude with which it intended to play. And Michigan didn’t disappoint, holding Illinois to 0.86 points per possession in its strongest defensive effort since the calendar turned to 2017.

DJ Wilson shines, but he wasn’t alone. In lockstep with Michigan’s two-way effort, sophomore DJ Wilsona revelation for Beilein this season—had another outstanding game on both ends of the court, scoring 19 points (8-of-10 FG), grabbing six offensive rebounds and dishing out five assists. Over a four-possession stretch midway through the first-half, Wilson contributed two jaw-dropping offensive rebound tip-ins, drawing and-1 fouls on both. “He was absolutely terrific today,” Illinois head coach John Groce said afterward, largely attributing Michigan’s overall dominance to the 6’10” forward. For as defensively active and offensively efficient as Wilson played on Saturday, though, he was by no means the only factor. The Wolverines’ veteran backcourt duo of Derrick Walton (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Irvin (15 points) also played aggressive, inspired basketball. Walton was all over the court, hitting big buckets to extend Michigan’s lead and besting his season-high on the glass. Irvin had two key steals and several strong baseline drives to the rim. The pair of seniors (especially Irvin) have been mercurial this season, and rarely has Michigan’s backcourt and frontcourt been as energized at the same time. The win provided 40-minute proof that the Wolverines’ ceiling might be higher than its 13-7 (3-4 Big Ten) record would indicate. “Gradually we’ll get to this point, before too long, hopefully, where guys feel confident and know they’ve got their swag enough to play at their highest level every day,” Beilein said.

Breakout sophomore DJ Wilson was outstanding against Illinois. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Little room to spare. Saturday’s encouraging performance really couldn’t have come at a more critical time. The Wolverines—projected in Jerry Palm’s “First Four In” and Joe Lunardi’s “Next Four Out” late last week— are squarely on the late January bubble, with their next five games coming against very beatable (and also very bubbly) opponents:  Indiana (twice), Michigan State (twice), and Ohio State (home). Unless Beilein’s club can knock off Wisconsin or Purdue in late February, its ability to obtain quality wins over the next two weeks could make or break its NCAA Tournament chances. If Michigan continues playing like it did this weekend against Illinois—exhibiting defensive chops worthy of its offense—winning four of those five games is not a stretch. If, however, the Wolverines fall back out of balance, their March hopes might soon become uncomfortably dire.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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