On Jan. 11 in Champaign, the Michigan men’s basketball team allowed Illinois to shoot 64 percent from both the field and beyond the arc in a game which the Fighting Illini scored 1.393 points per possession.
It was a contest that Michigan coach John Beilein labeled as the potential “low point” of the season, and there were seemingly very few solutions to the Wolverines’ defensive problem.
Twelve days later, spirits around the team are much higher.
Saturday, Michigan had a chance at revenge against the same Illinois team. This time, the game was back in Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines took their opportunity and ran with it.
Michigan held Illinois to just 0.891 points per possession, forcing 17 turnovers en route to a 66-57 victory.
“That’s why our (defensive efficiency rating) was so good,” Beilein said. “They still shot 45 percent, but they turned it over some, they threw it away.
“I just thought we were there. We were active. We were in gaps. We were swarming to the ball. We were flying around.”
Fighting Illini forward Maverick Morgan, who scored 16 points on 8-for-9 shooting in the game in Champaign, was held to just six points Saturday.
Overall, Illinois shot 46 percent from the field and just 17 percent from behind the arc, a stark difference from the two teams’ first matchup.
All in all, Michigan’s defense seemed to be a completely different unit than the one that took the court in Champaign ten days prior.
“We just want people to be what we call ‘quick men’, ” Beilein said. “Get to the ball, be there quick, if you have to give help, give help. But definitely be more physical on post ups, and make their catches higher and more difficult.”
In the last meeting, the Wolverines allowed the Fighting Illini too much space to shoot, paving the way for Illinois’ 85-point outburst.
Saturday, Michigan closed down that space, allowing the Fighting Illini little room to operate.
“We wanted to take (shots) away from them because they were exceptional last time,” Beilein said. “I haven’t seen Black shoot like he did against us, and the same with their big guy, Morgan. He really shot the heck out of it. We ran at people and tried to get them to make quick decisions, and some of that led to turnovers.”
Added senior wing Zak Irvin: “The big thing is knowing the scouting report, and knowing and executing our game plan the way we want to. It’s big for us to be able to win this afternoon, and as long as we do that, we put ourselves in a position to win games.”
But this type of defense requires stamina, especially for the players who need to be able to track and close out shooters on a consistent basis. And with the starting five soaking up most of the minutes, fatigue becomes an issue.
So the Wolverines have had to adapt a new mindset.
“The biggest (challenge) has been fighting fatigue,” Irvin said after Saturday’s win. “Being out there and playing a lot of minutes, you can’t really take any plays off, especially on the defensive end because you never know what possession will change the whole game. Everyone on the team had that mentality, and it worked out well for us.”
With this renewed sense of confidence in its defense, Michigan heads into a crucial portion of its schedule. The Wolverines will play four of their next six games at home, and that stretch of six games will include matchups against both Indiana and Michigan State twice, as well as Ohio State and No. 15 Wisconsin.
It’s a precarious position for Michigan to be in, but after a narrow loss to the Badgers last Tuesday and a win over Illinois on Saturday, the Wolverines are in a much better place than they were 12 days ago in Champaign.