Defense leads Michigan to victory

Monday, January 29, 2018 - 10:26pm

Junior forward Moritz Wagner held Northwestern center Dererk Pardon to just nine points.

Junior forward Moritz Wagner held Northwestern center Dererk Pardon to just nine points. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

 

Just last week, the Michigan men’s basketball team gave up 92 points.

No. 3 Purdue torched the Wolverines, doing whatever it wanted offensively.

That performance stuck in the minds of No. 24 Michigan, and it showed Monday, when the Wolverines played Northwestern.

The Wildcats were mystified offensively, shooting 38 percent from the floor, turning the ball over 16 times and losing, 58-47 — tied for the second fewest points the Wolverines have given up this season.

“This whole game, this whole press conference, should be about our defense. It was exceptional,” Beilein said. “I don’t want to get into rating it against others, but I told our guys, it’s as good as we’ve played right now, and it had to be.”

The defense had no choice but to step up with how much Michigan struggled on the offensive end, namely in the first half. It scored a paltry 21 points and shot 36 percent. Its leading scorer, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, had just six points on three-of-eight shooting.

If the Wolverines’ defense hadn’t shown up, they might have been run out of the gym by that point. Luckily for them, it did.

Junior forward Moritz Wagner has been much maligned for his defensive ineptitude. Against Purdue, he was bullied by its center, Isaac Haas. But Monday, Wagner held Northwestern center Dererk Pardon to just nine points and added two steals in the process.

“It was great,” Beilein said. “Guarding Haas is just like a whole different, it’s just very difficult. All these years, I’ve never seen anything like it. And so, that is not who (Wagner) is. At the same time, he was really good on Pardon, and Pardon is a really good player.”

It wasn’t just Wagner who stepped up for the Michigan defense. Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson was a pest, as usual, and junior forward Charles Matthews led the team with three steals. Even Robinson and freshman guard Jordan Poole — who have struggled defensively in the past — earned compliments from Beilein after the game.

The Purdue loss aside, stout defense is slowly becoming paramount to the Wolverines’ identity. They have the 25th-best defensive efficiency rating, according to KenPom, and have held opponents in the 50s and low-60s more consistently.

That’s not typical of a Beilein-coached team. Yet it’s something that other teams are beginning to take notice of.

“Normally, for them, they don’t win a game 58-47,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “So it just shows that they’ve made a lot of strides on that end of the floor, and I was impressed with their defense tonight.”

It seems like that statement would make sense for any team. Scoring less than 58 points is not a recipe for success.

Still, the sentiment that Michigan now has the ability to win the grind-it-out games is an important one. The Wolverines have shown this season that they are prone to bad games on offense. There have been countless times when they’ve come out slow in the first half, hung around with tough defense and roared back in the second 20 minutes.

Tuesday, that was once again the case.

“It just shows how resilient we are,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We come to work every day, we fight hard, we practice hard and it shows in the end.”

Resilience may be the key for Michigan offensively. Eventually, it will have to make more shots and consistently flash the offensive prominence that was present in its games against Michigan State and the Boilermakers.

Until that time comes, though, the Wolverines’ defense is keeping them rolling along.