Lockdown defense keys blowout win over Villanova

Wednesday, November 14, 2018 - 9:33pm

Freshman wing Ignas Brazdeikis helped lead Michigan to a big win over Villanova.

Freshman wing Ignas Brazdeikis helped lead Michigan to a big win over Villanova. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

VILLANOVA, Pa. — It happened exactly as John Beilein expected.

On Villanova’s second possession, senior forward Eric Paschall drove the lane, right at Ignas Brazdeikis. With Paschall’s 40-pound weight advantage and three more years of college experience, it should have been an easy two points. Instead, the freshman held his ground, absorbed the contact and took the charge.

“We thought they’d isolate him and go right at him,” Beilein said. “And he stuck right in there and drew a charge. That was moving his feet. Many players come in as freshmen, they aren’t ready to do that or it wears them out … His endurance and his toughness today were outstanding.”

It’s hard to point to the defining moment of a blowout like the 27-point shellacking Michigan unleashed on the Wildcats Wednesday night. But just 78 seconds into the game, Brazdeikis had set the tone.

The freshman forward from Ontario, Canada joined the Wolverines with a reputation for scoring. A knack for shutdown defense doesn’t show up on his scouting report.

It did, however, appear on Wednesday’s boxscore. Brazdeikis stifled Paschall all night, forcing him into an uncharacteristic 3-for-14 shooting night and just 10 points, and matching the Villanova power forward on every one of his drives to the basket.

“Iggy’s kind of like a mini pit bull,” said redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews. “He’s not scared of anything. He took the challenge, played against a good four-man. He came out there, just played hard, played smart and tried the best he can.”

With Michigan boasting elite defenders such as Matthews junior guard Zavier Simpson and junior center Jon Teske, it makes sense why the Wildcats tried to attack Brazdeikis, sensing a relative soft spot in the nation’s third most efficient defense. It didn’t work — and neither did anything else.

“They’re really good at picking you apart and finding a weakness,” Beilein said. “We didn’t have many weaknesses individually on defense today.”

Meanwhile, the pre-perceived strengths of the Wolverines’ defense remained strengths. Simpson — the fiery, hard-nosed leader of the unit — racked up a whopping six steals while relentlessly hounding point guard Collin Gillespie into five turnovers to just three assists, which prevented Villanova from finding any rhythm offensively.

“He’s just such a tough kid and he’s tough to get off the floor, sometimes I have to drag him off the floor,” Beilein said. “... (His teammates) look at him and they see leadership all over him.”

Added Villanova coach Jay Wright: “Every time (Gillespie) caught it, they were in on him. That’s why he was driving so much, and when he was driving they were just banging the hell out of him, not letting him go by them.”

Matthews, meanwhile, matched up with shooting guard Phil Booth, who came into the contest averaging 20 points per game. All night long, Matthews’ range and athleticism thwarted the Wildcats’ normally lethal perimeter attack, closing out hard on 3-point shots, recording two blocked shots and holding Booth to nine points on 2-for-8 shooting.

Beilein noted that Villanova shot just 15 3-pointers on Wednesday — less than half of its season average, and an essential ingredient in Michigan’s victory. Matthews’ length and athleticism were huge reasons why.

“He’s just active. His defense is what’s making us right now,” Beilein said. “Booth is a heck of a player. A heck of a player. So Charles is relentless when you give him a matchup like that.”

The Wildcats had no more luck dealing with the Wolverines’ big men, either. Teske is known for his prowess in the paint, but Wednesday showcased a different side of his game. Michigan often defended Villanova’s ball screens by switching Teske onto the ball handler, and the 7-foot-1 giant proved he was no statue.

“Most teams, if you switch a ball-screen, they’re not gonna get more complicated after,” Beilein said. “So Jon can do that. Jon can really move his feet, and that was very obvious today.”

Last season, the Wildcats possessed the second-most efficient offense in the KenPom era. On Wednesday, Villanova scored just 46 points total. It shot 31.8 percent from the field and 20 percent from behind the 3-point line. It had more turnovers (21) than made field goals (14).

And for Michigan, it was the entire team — Simpson all the way down to the unheralded Brazdeikis — that made such a performance possible.

“Their defense was very physical, very aggressive, and really locked in to their scouting report,” Wright said. “... They’re playing with Brazdeikis at the ‘5’, and he's the biggest guy and he’s guarding our guards.

“That’s a hell of a team.”