Over the last 15 months, as Michigan’s defensive star has ascended — taking the Wolverines from a team on the tournament bubble to the Final Four to a 20-1 record to start this season — nearly every reason why has been dissected and digested.
Assistant coach Luke Yaklich instilled a culture. Junior point guard Zavier Simpson and redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews enforced it. The virus took hold, then spread — and now, Michigan’s 83.8 adjusted defensive efficiency is on pace to be the best in the KenPom era.
But there is one element of this renaissance that, really, isn’t a renaissance at all. More accurately, call it a continuation.
The Wolverines don’t foul. They rank second in the country in defensive free throw rate, and since 2012, they’ve been worse than 25th just twice. That’s no recent development, but something preached within the program for quite a while.
“That’s stuff we’d work on all the time, is not reaching, not using an armbar,” said Spike Albrecht, a Michigan guard from 2013-17. “Things like that.”
In practices, the Wolverines can use slide drills or verbal reinforcement to stress avoiding fouls. In a game though, playing good defense while doing so is a sort of art.
“Especially on the ball, just picking up stupid fouls — they call like an armbar, instead your hands are up and you’re sliding and using your chest,” Albrecht said. “Cause you wanna be physical but you don’t wanna foul.
“Essentially you’re fouling with your chest instead of your arms, because lots of times, if a ref sees an arm in there, they’re more inclined to call it versus, ‘Hey, his hands are up.’ But you’re still making contact with the dude. Sometimes you can kind of get away with fooling the refs a little bit.”
This iteration of Michigan doesn’t just defend physically without fouling. It has perfected the art, and you don’t need to look too far to see it.
This is how Simpson turns opposing point guards — or, in Tuesday’s case, Ohio State center Kaleb Wesson — into overly frustrated playthings. It’s how Matthews has turned himself into a potential NBA commodity despite shooting just 32.3 percent from 3-point range. It’s how junior center Jon Teske has gone from merely tall to a dominant rim protector.
Anyone who has asked Michigan coach John Beilein about Teske in the last year has been treated to a range of hand motions, demonstrating his want for Teske to use verticality in the paint. After a 65-49 win over Ohio State on Tuesday, Beilein had nothing but praise.
“He was trying to slap at the ball when the guy was coming up,” Beilein said. “He’d run his arms through him and use verticality, all the time. Now he’s learned to do it — wait, wait, be more selective with shots you can block.”
Teske may be the most overt example. He’s far from the only one.
Avoiding bad fouls is a part of Michigan’s defensive culture, as much as anything else. One of the keys behind a great defense, it turns out, is overwhelmingly simple.
“I don’t wanna say, ‘Hey, we don’t foul.’ We try not to have bad fouls,” Beilein said Thursday. “And if you look at a game, there’s three or four bad fouls every single game, that if you can avoid those, that could be the difference between a one-and-one, a guy in foul trouble, right, or a double-bonus. So we try to avoid that.
“It’s just every day in practice, we’re very physical with how we practice, but bad fouls are pointed out every minute. And sometimes, people want to start every practice, ‘How are we gonna practice? Hard. How are we gonna practice? Smart.’ And smart is, don’t put them to the foul line. We can’t defend the foul line. We can’t defend a foul shot. So the one way to avoid that to happen is, don’t put them there carelessly.”
In this sense, Beilein has been the perfect complement to Yaklich. Asked on Tuesday who’s behind the emphasis, sophomore guard Jordan Poole struggled to come up with an answer.
“Coach B hates fouls,” he said, “and coach Yak loves defense, so —”
Then Isaiah Livers stepped in to finish the sentence.
“It works perfectly.”