MINNEAPOLIS — A Big Ten center had a huge game against the Michigan men’s basketball team. Again.
Early in the season, this story wrote itself in nearly every Big Ten matchup the Wolverines played. Michigan plays a team with a dominant big man. Big man has a career night in the points column. Questions arise about the Wolverines’ interior defense. Repeat.
While their strategy initially drew mixed results with Michigan standing at 2-3 in conference play, Sunday’s matchup against Minnesota saw the Wolverines’ game plan backfire, sending Michigan packing with a 75-67 loss and a squandered attempt to win its first road game.
The strategy is simple enough: Never double the ball handler in the post and ruthlessly guard the 3-point line.
Whether it’s a 7-foot-5 behemoth who leads the league in points in the paint or an ambitious wing player posting up his defender, Michigan never sends help. While lowering the barriers to easy buckets down low, this philosophy lends itself to lock-down defense from the perimeter. And, for the most part, the Wolverines have succeeded in that realm.
Seeing as opponents rarely attempt shots from beyond the arc against Michigan, their scoring — and the bulk of the Wolverines’ defensive problems — come from the paint. Sunday, that problem was put on full display with Golden Gophers center Daniel Oturu gashing Michigan for 30 points and the team, as a whole, scoring a whopping 46 points in the paint.
“We’re just playing them one-on-one,” senior center Jon Teske said. “We’re not helping off the 3-pointers. … We let them play down low, and we take away the 3-point shooting ability. In the Big Ten, we have a lot of great 3-point shooters, and that’s one way you can get beat, and we’re trying to take that away.”
And it wasn’t just Oturu who got in on the action. After the sophomore went down briefly with a shoulder injury early in the second half, forward Alihan Demir stepped up and dropped 13 of his own, largely from within the paint, posting up freshman forward Franz Wagner.
As it stands, there is a gaping hole in Michigan’s defensive front, despite the individual efforts of its best on-ball defenders. The question now becomes whether or not to make any adjustments to limit the elite play down low.
Early indicators suggest that Michigan coach Juwan Howard will be mulling over some adjustments with his players and staff. After all, Michigan’s strategy seems to have the effectiveness of a coin flip.
The Wolverines have won games despite opposing centers setting career — and sometimes program — highs. Iowa’s Luka Garza dropped 44 points and Purdue’s Trevion Williams nabbed 36 in Michigan wins. But now, it seems prolific play down low from opposing big men is rearing its head in losses, too.
“Of course I will (reevaluate the defense),” Howard said. “I always reevaluate. I’m always about growth mindset.”
Added Teske: “We’ll look at it on the drawing board. We play Iowa next, and (Luka Garza) had a big game against us, but we still won, so I mean just you gotta pick your poison sometimes. And we kinda let them get the points, and they’re still gonna score.”
But the question during this reevaluation period should really boil down to: Is this defensive scheme broken, or does Michigan need to bolster its one-on-one on-ball defense?
Ask any Wolverine following a loss, and they’ll be quick to tell you that everyone needs to get better at guarding their man. Especially when big men are setting career highs every time they see maize and blue on the opposing jerseys.
“A lot of it is still on me,” Teske said. “I still gotta get stops. I still gotta stay accountable for a lot of those points that I’m giving up. I gotta do a better job of helping my teammates, and at the same time, we need to get better defensively too, guarding the low post.”
There is little wonder that this philosophy stems from Howard’s time spent in the NBA and his firsthand experience, and subsequent perpetual fear, of the terror the 3-point shot can bring upon defenses. Eliminate the 3, eliminate the most efficient method of scoring the basketball.
“There’s a lot of teams that don’t trap,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “Coach Howard knows what he’s doing. Trapping isn’t always as easy as everybody thinks it is because we’ve got shooters who make 10 3s a game, we pass the ball pretty well.
“So, we just had to keep going into them, and they guarded the 3-point line very, very well, and obviously they held us below their average, but we have to find a way to get (Oturu) post touches, and we did that.”