Michigan's defense leading the team out of the shadow of The Bahamas

Monday, February 24, 2020 - 5:06pm

Freshman wing Franz Wagner and the Michigan men's basketball team have played much better defensively of late.

Freshman wing Franz Wagner and the Michigan men's basketball team have played much better defensively of late. Buy this photo
Emma Mati/Daily

When any team is searching for its identity, it deals in moments.

Players, fans and pundits alike look for one game, one tournament, one shot to define a season or sometimes even entire programs. For instance, the Wolverines’ miracle run to the final game of the 2018 NCAA Tournament is defined by Jordan Poole’s 3-point prayer to advance past Houston. This season, it’s been The Bahamas.

Early in the season, it was all anyone could talk about when discussing Michigan basketball. And it’s easy to see why.

The Wolverines marched into Atlantis an unproven, untested team with a million question marks and a brand new face on the sidelines. They delivered an incredible three-game stretch downing two top-10 teams. It was the type of tone-setting performance that programs dream of and coaches froth over.

But once Michigan hit a four-game skid after losing star junior forward Isaiah Livers to injury, the performance in The Bahamas became a double-edged sword — an expectation against which everything else was measured.

And perhaps the comparison wasnt unfair. Even Michigan’s own players would often compare the team’s mental fortitude and in-game attitude to its peak in the Caribbean. Freshman forward Franz Wagner was one of the first to highlight this disparity when discussing the team’s apparent lack of emotion in a loss on the road to Iowa, stating that during the team’s string of losses the team hadn’t had the same emotional level as in The Bahamas.

But now the Wolverines have won five straight and the comparisons are starting to resurface, but in the best way possible for Michigan.

Assistant coach Phil Martelli wasn’t shy to make the comparison following the Wolverines’ road win against Purdue.

“I thought in The Bahamas, we looked like an offensive team,” he said. “Now I think we look like a winning team.”

With Livers back in the starting lineup and Michigan convincingly winning games at an elite level, not only are the Wolverines playing like they did in The Bahamas, but they might be even better, according to Martelli. So what’s the difference now?

The short answer: defense.

And the stats flesh that out. In The Bahamas, opponents averaged 68 points per game and now over Michigan’s last five wins, opponents averaged 60.4 points per game — an astounding near eight-point drop off.

Along with overall scoring, opponents’ shooting percentages have taken a dip as well. Rivals in The Bahamas shot 42 percent from the floor and now are connecting on just 37.2 percent of shots over the last five games.

Where things get particularly bleak for the Wolverines’ foes though comes from 3-point shots. In The Bahamas, Michigan was effective in limiting perimeter shots with opponents shooting just 29.7 percent from three in the Caribbean. Recently though, the Wolverines have been on another planet.

In Michigan’s last five games, players not wearing maize and blue have shot just 23.32 percent from 3-point range. The Wolverines have effectively neutralized any shooting advantage a team may possess from deep, especially focusing on limiting 3-point attempts while also guarding one-on-one.

Now it’s just a matter of seeing where this defensive change has come from.

“For people to understand, ‘Where did this come from?’ This came from the defensive side of the ball,” Martelli said. “And the tribute goes to Juwan (Howard) and (assistant coach) Saddi (Washington) as the defensive coordinator insisting on shrinking the floor. We’re a lot sharper now in our scouting reports.”

Giving Michigan’s perimeter defenders — highlighted by junior guard Eli Brooks, Wagner and senior guard Zavier Simpson, among others — the sharper scouting reports on opposing guards has made all the difference.

The Wolverines lost the second half against the Boilermakers on Sunday — Purdue scored 42 to Michigan’s 35. But it didn’t matter because after only scoring 21 points on the Wolverines’ stalwart defense in the first, the Boilermakers just couldn’t score enough to win.

“That wasn’t a thing of beauty offensively in the second half,” Martelli said. “We’re maybe not built that way, but defensive side of the ball — if we stayed out there the next 20 minutes, they were not gonna score enough. 

“And that’s what’s happening to these teams, they’re just not scoring enough.”