Michigan's defense and the new normal

Saturday, March 16, 2019 - 6:34pm

Charles Matthews helped craft Michigan's defensive identity last season.

Charles Matthews helped craft Michigan's defensive identity last season. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

CHICAGO — Luke Yaklich took a long pause and gave a wry smile.

Michigan’s assistant coach had just answered a question about the team’s defensive identity — whether having one from the jump this season made things easier — with, “I think so.” An awkward silence ensued. Standing in the middle of the Wolverines’ locker room after a 76-49 win over Minnesota, Yaklich’s snark was well-earned.

A Midwesterner at heart though, the facade broke.

“OK,” he finally said, cracking. “So, I think that the main thing defensively for us this year has been the idea that, when we went to Villanova and won, that mindset has been there. And you get there not by talking about it. You get to become a great defensive team by holding guys accountable. By having great defenders.

“And then kids that — guys that buy into the entire scheme that we’re trying to do. We have great guys, great kids that are really good defenders. And those habits, plus our accountability, plus the team holding each other accountable — you can’t quantify and say it’s 60 percent this and 20 that, 20 that. It’s a mixture of all of it. But it starts with having really good players. And we have really good defenders that take a lot of pride in shutting down who they’re guarding.”

There’s no building left for Michigan on the defensive end. This is the finished product. Two Big Ten Tournament games, two opponents suffocated. Onto the next.

This time last year, as the Wolverines put together a similar run in New York, reporters swirled around Yaklich with a tone of palpable disbelief. Michigan — yes, Michigan — was good at defense now?

There are varying answers for when that identity took hold. The correct one doesn’t particularly matter. It’s here now. It’s been here since the beginning of the season, and the Wolverines have lost five games. They play in the Big Ten Tournament final tomorrow. This is normal now. It has been normal for a long time.

“I don’t think it’s something that we stress. Our players understand the importance of defense and how well we play,” Yaklich said. “When we’re playing well defensively, how much more that gives to our team. So, I don’t think it’s anything that really is anything like crazy, lot of motivational speeches at this point. Our players understand our culture. Our culture is that we’re gonna defend every night and you’re gonna be held accountable to defending within the gameplan for that particular day.”

On this particular day, it meant stuffing Minnesota in a closet. The Gophers shot 40.7 percent from the field. They scored .831 points per possession. They made just two 3-pointers, and it was double the number Iowa made against Michigan on Saturday. They walked off the floor like they had just encountered a tornado.

For the Wolverines, this is merely the expectation.

“Luke’s on this all the time,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “And that we’re understanding that we’re charting every possession. And what the expectation is. Your name’s not gonna show up in red the next day, as you didn’t do your job.”

Michigan State cracked the code twice in the last three weeks — both times with Cassius Winston taking full control. Before Michigan took the floor on Saturday, Winston did the same thing to Wisconsin, scoring 21 points with six assists and a bad knee.

The Wolverines played the first two games against the Spartans, essentially, without ace defender Charles Matthews. After suffering an ankle injury, the redshirt junior returned to the first in the second half — a decision he called “dumb” on Friday night — and was too injured to guard Cassius Winston or Matt McQuaid as Michigan State climbed back the game and won. Two weeks later in East Lansing, without Matthews at all, the same outcome befell Michigan, only that time, the Spartans cut down the nets after the game.

On Sunday, the Wolverines can put all that to bed. There’s no question as to how.

“I think they understand that,” Beilein said. “And now, it’s a little bit — it’s a lot of our identity actually.”