Defense leads again, as Michigan suffocates Montana

Friday, March 16, 2018 - 1:41am

Sophomore center Jon Teske had two blocks in Michigan's win over Montana on Thursday.

Sophomore center Jon Teske had two blocks in Michigan's win over Montana on Thursday. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

You watched an ugly snorefest, rife with offensive doldrums and sloppy play.

The Michigan men’s basketball team scored just 61 points, made just 5-of-16 3-point field goal attempts, turned the ball over 14 times and beat an undewhelming Montana team, 61-47, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament late Thursday night. It was an instantly forgettable basketball game, if you’d be kind enough to call it that.

But that’s not the game assistant coach Luke Yaklich watched.

“It was beautiful from a defensive standpoint,” Yaklich said. “For a defensive coach, it was a beautiful game.”

While the offense lagged along — piecing together the second-lowest point total in a first round NCAA Tournament game in the Beilein era — the team defense just kept humming. Montana averages 78 points per game and scored just 47 Thursday. It shoots 47 percent from the field, and shot just 32 percent Thursday. You see out of sync, Yaklich sees perfect harmony. You see sloppy, Yaklich sees hustle.

And for the players, who came to a program known for offensive melody and defensive mediocrity, the feeling was one of odd familiarity. It’s a team that has come to not only play good defense, but win because of defense. The prevailing sentiment from the locker room was that this game was less an oddity and more of the new status quo.

Been there. Done that. Who’s next?

But the game didn’t always appear to be in Michigan’s assured grasp. The 14th-seeded Grizzlies came out ablaze, scoring the first ten points of the game in just over four minutes of play, shaking the Wolverines — who had nearly two weeks off in between games — to their core. 

“I was just thinking, ‘rusty,’ ” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “That was the first word that popped into my mind.”

But Michigan’s offense didn’t so much shake off any Big Ten Tournament rust as it did what it does best: clamp down defensively and suffocate the life out of its opponent.

The Wolverines allowed just 37 points in the remaining 36 minutes of the game, including a dominant stretch in the first ten minutes of the second half in which they allowed just two.

“They were driving the heck out of the ball. We just had to make a little bit of a physical and mental adjustment,” Yaklich said. … “They did a good job of adjusting and shutting those driving lanes down.”

That adjustment, to limit the driving lanes afforded to Montana’s energetic backcourt tandem of Ahmaad Rohrie and Michael Oguine, quickly stifled an otherwise formidable offense. 

But again, this is nothing new. In what has been a regular occurrence throughout the year, Michigan scored less than one point per possession and still maintained a comfortable lead throughout a viscerally displeasing game. The Wolverines have now won eight games in which they have scored 68 points or fewer.

“We’ve had a couple (games) this year that I thought our offense was sluggish, and didn’t quite execute as well as we wanted to, but just relied on our defense to get stops,” said fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson. 

Robinson has been part of three offense-first teams at Michigan. It’s taken some time, but even the 3-point marksman has come to embrace the defensive identity that has permeated the team. For the most part.

“It’s nice,” Robinson said, when asked about his team’s ability to grind games out. “I mean, it’s not the most fun way to play. I mean, defense is fun, don’t let Coach Yak know I just said that.”

With the win, Michigan moved up to 3rd in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, a jarring statistic, even as the lauding of its defense becomes more of a national narrative. 

Not even Yaklich, brought in for defense and defense alone, could pretend to see this coming this fast. 

“I kind of have the same mindset as Coach B — you get better everyday. At the end of it all, you see where you’re at,” Yaklich said. “Our work ethic and practices were going to be structured to get as good as we can defensively. 

“This is where we’re at. Not necessarily where we thought we’d be, probably, at the start of the year. But this is where we are.”