ANAHEIM, Calif. — Growing up, Isaiah Livers changed the channel every time there was a hard-nosed defensive battle. After all, who wanted to watch a lot of people not scoring?
But now, the sophomore forward knows that on Thursday, he will likely face one of those games when the Michigan men’s basketball team faces Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. This will be the top two defensive teams in the country going at it, and Livers is as excited as anyone to be a part of it.
“Now I want to see what the score is gonna be,” Livers said. “If we can hold them under their season average and they can hold us under our season average.”
Livers changed his mindset on defense primarily due to assistant coach Luke Yaklich, who urged Livers to think about why he liked defense. Livers replied that he didn’t like people scoring because that’s how you lose games. Yaklich pressed other members of the team in much the same way, giving way to a culture change in the Wolverines’ program — one that loves defense.
In that sense, the Red Raiders are a spitting image. Texas Tech hired coach Chris Beard from Little Rock in 2016, and Beard brought with him Mark Adams, his defensive right-hand man. Beard and Adams created much the same culture that Yaklich did, transforming the Red Raiders from a Big 12 afterthought to a national contender with a clear identity.
But Texas Tech’s defensive strategy couldn’t be more different from Michigan’s. While the Wolverines run opposing players off the 3-point line, defend one-on-one and rarely foul, the Red Raiders play a “no middle” pressure defense that forces teams into baseline drives and tries for turnovers. Each has shined with its own scheme. Now, it’ll be strength vs. strength, identity vs. identity.
“There’s a hundred ways to do it right in basketball,” Yaklich said. “You can pick a hundred plays to run and it all revolves around how much you’re paying attention to that on a daily basis. … Coach Beard and his staff, like us on the defensive side of the ball, there’s certain things that we’re gonna pay attention to and stat and reward and really lock into.”
At Wednesday’s practice, the Wolverines prepared to run a drill. Michigan coach John Beilein yelled out, “Perfect passing! Let’s go!”
That’s how Michigan prepares for a stalwart defensive battle — by focusing on its offensive fundamentals. Perfect passing goes back to the very first practice. Go into the defender’s body. Put your outside hand all the way out so the passer can throw the ball easily. It’s something that constantly evolves, but in a game like this, it’ll matter more than ever. So with their limited practice time, the Wolverines have circled back to it.
Staying disciplined. Holding onto the ball. Perfect passing. It’s the same strategy Michigan used against other pressure teams like Illinois and Northwestern. Texas Tech’s defense is a big step up from those two, but then, the Wolverines have had more time to perfect a strategy.
“We just study them,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. “Say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna try to score against them, you see this? Let’s do this.’ ”
These kinds of games are often overlooked by the casual college basketball fan, eschewed in favor of a more glamorous matchup with a symphony of shots. But for Michigan and Texas Tech, the two most unique teams left in the tournament, both testaments to a specific type of culture change, perhaps the matchup couldn’t be more perfect.
“We hang our hat on defense, they hang their hat on defense,” Haynes said. “And that’s gonna be two dogfights out there.”