Another game, another opposing big man stifled by the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Jackson-Davis entered Sunday’s contest as the Big Ten’s third-leading scorer at 20.3 points per game and the conference’s second-leading rebounder, with 9.5 rebounds per game. He has 10 double-doubles to his name on the season.
Against Michigan, Jackson-Davis hardly made a dent. On 3-of-12 shooting, he notched 10 points and four rebounds, both tied for season-lows. Indiana was outscored by 19 in his 34 minutes of action.
“The only way to slow someone that powerful, quick down on the block, especially by yourself, is to make him go to the other hand,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “He can go both ways, but he’s better going left. We stayed true to our scouting report. We wanted him to take tough shots over his left shoulder so he’d have to use his right hand.”
Interior defense was often the Wolverines’ achilles heel last season, with opposing big men repeatedly torturing 7-foot-1 Jon Teske. This year, 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson has flipped the script, emerging as a formidable rim protector capable of holding his own against the league’s best.
“Matched up against Hunter and (redshirt senior center Austin Davis), we call them the two-headed monster,” Livers said. “Going against them down low on the block is not easy.”
Defense is not Dickinson’s calling card, but he has shown steady improvement over the course of the season. Questions over his lateral quickness and ball-screen defense, compounded with the adjustment from high school to college, have been subdued. No one has played a larger role in Dickinson’s development than Michigan coach Juwan Howard, who has emphasized a collective buy-in on the defensive end throughout the season.
“I want everyone to be able to defend,” Howard said. “That’s the most important thing. We’re gonna score, we’re gonna generate a lot of our offense from our defense. But defensively, we can’t have anyone taking any plays off. This league is just too damn good. And anytime you of course try to take a breath and relax on defense, teams will make you pay.”
Against Jackson-Davis, Michigan proved relentless from the jump. He started out 1-of-8 from the field. Only two of his 10 points occurred when Indiana was within single-digits. At one point, he went nearly 20 minutes of gametime between baskets.
Stifling Jackson-Davis allowed the rest of the Wolverines defense to thrive as well, with Indiana shooting 38% from the field and 27% from distance. With a subpar game from Jackson-Davis and an injury to second-leading scorer Armaan Franklin, the Hoosiers had nowhere else to turn for offense.
“I think once our big men really made them take tough shots inside, it makes it so much easier for the perimeter players cause you don’t have to help as much and you’re not forced to close out really hard,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “It definitely helps the whole defense especially when the post guys are premier players like Trayce Jackson-Davis or Garza.”
Upsets are an integral component to college basketball and yet, an outlying loss to Minnesota aside, the Wolverines have proved immune. Taking away the opposition’s most-potent weapon is certainly an effective way to do that.
On Tuesday, 7-foot, 285-pound Kofi Cockburn leads No. 5 Illinois into Ann Arbor. In the past, a dominant outing from Cockburn would be expected. Now, after flummoxing Garza and Jackson-Davis, it would be no surprise to see Michigan’s interior defense rise to the occasion again.
“We have habits,” Livers said. “We stay disciplined as possible. I’m not gonna give the secret away. You can watch the film and figure out what we do. We just do it to perfection.”