Stout defense becoming a calling card for the Wolverines

Wednesday, February 17, 2021 - 9:00pm

Michigan held Wisconsin to a season-low 20 second-half points on Sunday.

Michigan held Wisconsin to a season-low 20 second-half points on Sunday. Buy this photo
Julia Schachinger/Daily

Wisconsin got anything and everything it wanted on offense. 

Whether it was point guard D’Mitrik Trice, or forwards Aleem Ford and Micah Potter, the Badgers were scoring at will in the first half of Sunday’s game against the Michigan men’s basketball team. 

Returning from their well-documented 23-day pause, the Wolverines looked out of sync defensively. Michigan’s help defense was either a step slow on drives into the lane or, when the Wolverines did rotate on the initial penetration, Wisconsin’s shooters were left with ample time and space to make them pay from deep. The Badgers dropped 39 points in the first half and shot 54% from the field. 

It didn’t look like the same tenacious, sound Michigan defense that was on display through the first 14 games. The team that emerged from the locker room minutes later though, did. 

The Wolverines returned to the swarming defensive effort that made them the best in the Big Ten, per KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings.

“We did a better job,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard told reporters on Wednesday. “We were able to force some turnovers with our press defense that really helped get us back in the ballgame.” 

With seven second-half takeaways, the Wolverines did a much better job disrupting Wisconsin’s offense. Even when the Badgers managed to get a shot off, it was rarely an uncontested look — they shot just 8% from 3-point range and 25% overall in the second half. 

Freshman center Hunter Dickinson was central to that effort. He finished the game with five blocks, including a couple on Trice late in the game. It’s rare to see a 7-foot-1 freshman succeed as a ball-screen defender in isolation, but Dickinson rose to the challenge on Sunday.

“He’s been put in a situation as a freshman to perform a sort-of ball screen defense that he hasn’t done before,” Howard said. “Yes, we practiced it but we didn’t have all those summer workouts to fast-track it and get him truly prepared. Because Hunter’s a high-IQ ball player, a competitor and loves basketball, he’s picked it up quickly. 

“… To get stops like that down the stretch against a very quick, very elite point guard says a lot about Hunter’s footwork and foot-speed.” 

While Michigan has shown an ability to simply outscore its opponents at times this season, the Wolverines’ defense has been their true calling card. They’ve held teams under 60 points six times so far.

Dickinson may have been their anchor against Wisconsin, but when it comes to defense, it takes an entire team to buy in. Michigan’s roster hasn’t just bought in, it’s relished those opportunities.

“Just basically having our brothers’ backs,” senior guard Chaundee Brown said. “We know the defensive tendencies we do every day in practice, whether it’s on-ball or off-ball, we’ve been in those positions plenty of times in practice so it just comes down to having your brother’s back and believing in the person behind you.”

The Wolverines’ ability and willingness to lock in defensively manifests itself in games like Sunday’s, but it’s been forged on the practice floor from the beginning of the season. 

“For sure, we do get on each other every day in practice when we do miss a defensive assignment, but it’s not even intentional, we’re just trying to hold each other accountable because everybody wants to be great,” Brown said. “If we mess up on one assignment, we just correct one another and explain why you have to do this and why you didn’t do it the first time and things like that. 

“We do get on each other but it’s just because we want to win. That’s what’s so special about this team.”

Having skilled individual defenders — like senior guard Eli Brooks, Dickinson and Brown off the bench, to name a few — has elevated Michigan’s defense as a whole by pushing everyone else to be better. Graduate point guard Mike Smith has been one of the beneficiaries. At 5-foot-11, Smith may be undersized compared to other guards, but has shown flashes of being a hard-nosed defender this season. He’s third on the team in steals and had two in the win over the Badgers. He credits his teammates’ intensity on the defensive end with helping him improve himself. 

“It motivates me to hopefully be up there with those guys,” Smith said. “It’s a competitive thing. The coaches always challenge me to be better on the defensive end when I first stepped on campus. I’ve tried to accept that role and be that player… I for sure look up to them and how they pride themselves on defense.” 

Collectively, Michigan has embraced its identity as a staunch defensive unit. The success has followed suit. 

“Defense wins games,” Smith said.

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