WEST LAFAYETTE — Entering Friday, no Big Ten team had more momentum than Purdue, proud owners of a conference-best four-game winning streak.
By late Friday night, that momentum disappeared, zapped by a staunch defensive performance from the Michigan men’s basketball team. In a rock fight at Mackey Arena, the Wolverines (13-1 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) repeatedly stifled the Boilermakers (11-6, 6-4), holding them to a season-low point total en route to a 70-53 road victory.
“Our guys were in there battling and competing,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “I know tomorrow morning, they’re gonna wake up sore because they earned it. This was a game where it was built on physicality. Old school, Big Ten type of game. There were times I recall playing in the Big Ten, it has always been a physical conference, but tonight really was a game about physicality.”
On paper, Purdue’s physically imposing frontcourt of 6-foot-10 Trevion Williams and 7-foot-4 Zach Edey posed the most formidable test to date for Michigan’s interior defense. In last January’s matchup, Williams dominated the Wolverines with a 36-point, 20-rebound spectacle.
This game proved vastly different. From the onset, the Wolverines neutralized the duo, as 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson held his own against Wiliams in the post. In the process, Michigan jumped out to a quick 9-2 lead and never looked back.
“Every shot attempt that Trevion took, (Dickinson) challenged it,” Howard said. “Not saying he stopped every one, but he challenged the shots and you look at the box score, (Williams) had to work for those six field goals. He’s a load in there, but (Dickinson) did a fantastic job of taking on that 1-on-1 challenge.”
Midway through the first half, the Wolverines were forced to shift their strategy. Dickinson picked up his second foul and his backup, redshirt senior Austin Davis, joined him on the bench in foul trouble three minutes later. They would now have to attempt to contain Williams and Edey without the efforts of their two traditional big men.
The perceived mismatches proved to be no issue. Michigan swarmed Williams with a bevy of double-teams, limiting him to 2-of-7 from the field in the first half. Without production from Williams, Purdue’s offense went cold, twice going four minutes without notching a field goal and shooting 32% in the opening 20 minutes.
“Really just move our feet,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said of the strategy to contain Williams. “Bigs, especially bigs that are that much bigger than me, move your feet, hands up and then obviously the guy guarding the passer we try to teach, just get into them. They’ll miss the moment, won’t be able to throw it in as easy, try to get deflections and if not at the guard, we all have the habit so take it to the chest.”
As the suffocating defense kept the Boilermakers off the scoreboard, the Wolverines opened up a 34-21 halftime advantage, buoyed by 12 points from Livers, who would go on to score a game-high 22.
A flurry of fastbreak points by Purdue threatened to swing the game back in favor of the Boilermakers to kickstart the second half. The Wolverines, though, kept them at arm’s length by turning defense into offense. A trio of steals by Livers, senior guard Eli Brooks and sophomore forward Franz Wagner led to six points at the other end and a 16-point lead.
“We wanted to make them feel uncomfortable for a whole 94 feet for 40 minutes and that’s what we did,” Brooks said. “We forced turnovers, scored off turnovers. That was a big emphasis on the game plan.”
On a night in which two of Michigan’s premiere offensive weapons struggled — Wagner shot 2-of-10 from the field and Dickinson tallied six turnovers to go with eight points — defense ensured the Wolverines remained in front by a comfortable margin. Purdue’s top three scorers combined to shoot 12-of-39 from the field. Williams, who entered the game averaging 15.4 points per game, managed 14 on an inefficient 6-of-19 from the floor.
“I think just throwing a body for 40 minutes,” Brooks said. “That’s tough on anybody. We pushed him off his spots and made every shot difficult. Try to contest without fouling. He’s a good player so he’s gonna get to his spots, just make everything contested.”
In the second half, not once did the Wolverines’ lead whittle below 12. As the final buzzer sounded, the Wolverines had again orchestrated a methodical drubbing of an NCAA Tournament-caliber opponent. And for that, they have their stellar defense to thank.