LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Pick your metaphor.
Assistant coach Saddi Washington likes the saying, “You’ve got to be the hammer, not the nail.” Michigan head coach John Beilein scolds his players against “Tinker Bell boxouts.” Freshman forward Isaiah Livers, in a no-frills style, says it’s simply about giving “everything you’ve got.”
Either way, that’s the verbiage that has given the Michigan basketball team its most overlooked improvement — rebounding. Last year, the Wolverines ranked 224th in defensive rebounding percentage, per TeamRankings.com, ultimately costing them crucial second-chance points.
This season has been a much different story. Michigan ranks 16th in the stat — the second best among teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, a pair of new assistant coaches and new personnel have played a role. But the real reason for the improvement starts with a newly dedicated mindset.
“There’s really been a commitment from the guys,” Washington said. “They’re more willing participants and actually see the benefits of rebounding, especially on the defensive end to limit second opportunities. That’s something that’s been preached all year long, and our guys have done a good job buying into it.”
It all starts with junior center Mortiz Wagner. After testing the waters and conditionally entering the NBA Draft, Wagner ultimately returned to school after being knocked for his rebounding and defensive consistency. His defense, with all the ticky-tack fouls Wagner collects early in games, is a work in progress. But his ability on the boards this season is much improved, as evidenced by a jump from 4.2 to 7.1 rebounds per contest.
Guess where the advance stems from.
“He just needed to change his mindset, go get some rebounds out of his area,” Washington said. “I think he’s made a tremendous shift in his approaching to growing in that area of his game.”
But perhaps Wagner’s biggest test lies ahead. On Thursday, the Wolverines will attempt to advance to the Elite Eight against Texas A&M — the country’s sixth-tallest team — at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The seventh-seeded Aggies boast a starting frontcourt of D.J. Hogg, Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, who all stand 6-foot-9 or taller. As such, they’ve caused problems for teams all year, averaging nearly 11 offensive rebounds per game.
“(That’s) as high a number as we’ve seen this year,” Beilein said. … “We were really consumed with how many offensive rebounds we can keep a team from getting. The rebounds don’t win the game. Offensive rebounds win games.”
Preparing for the Aggies is no simple task. Livers said Williams is the biggest ‘4’ he’ll face this season and thus spent the last three days guarding 6-foot-10, 245-pound center Austin Davis in practice.
But the reality is there’s no perfect way to simulate the Aggie’s overpowering frontcourt. Box out drills and scouting reports only go so far. So to supplement, the Wolverines have looked back at games against similarly large frontcourts, like those of Michigan State and Purdue.
For a half, it wasn’t pretty against the Spartans in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan State dominated inside, winning the rebounding margin, points in the paint and second chance buckets.
There’s a reason why Beilein clips a picture of a pitbull on Michigan’s locker room white board. He wants to inspire that attitude, and it worked. The Wolverines controlled the glass in the second half, helping them advance to an eventual conference championship.
Still, Michigan will undoubtedly have another physical disadvantage on Thursday. Beilein, of course, prefers finesse over pure size, creating an intriguing contrast of styles against Texas A&M. Theoretically, Wagner’s quickness is a mismatch for the Aggies — just as he was for Michigan State twice this year.
“It’s not like this is something new for us,” Washington said. “But they have great size, great athleticism. But at the same time, they got to turn around and guard us on the other end.”
But to hedge that disparity, naturally, the Wolverines will go back to the mindset that help them get to Los Angeles in the first place — metaphors included.
“You definitely have to put yourself in position to get those rebounds, but then rebounding is a skill, it’s an attitude,” Washington said. “This is the time of year — even more so — when we have to have that.”