Suffocating defense fuels Michigan in dominant victory

Tuesday, January 12, 2021 - 9:03pm

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Emma Mati/Daily

Every way Wisconsin forward Aleem Ford turned, a maize jersey greeted him. 

Holding for the final possession of the first half, the Badgers looked to Ford to provide sorely-needed points and a morale boost to end a horrid drought. He failed to even muster up a shot attempt, inciting mayhem as the buzzer sounded. 

Franz Wagner stood in the paint, flexing and screaming. Isaiah Livers cocked his arm back for a full-throttle fist pump. The entire bench spilled out onto the floor, swallowing up the Wisconsin players, who trudged into the locker room. Michigan sprinted into the tunnel, still hollering and up 17. 

“I think we got five players flying around,” sophomore wing Wagner said. “We got people that can defend multiple positions.” 

The sequence to close the first half serves as a microcosm of Michigan’s dominant defensive performance in its statement-making 77-54 victory. Each way the Badgers looked on offense, the Wolverines staged an emphatic answer. 

Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, despondent and monotone, opened his postgame press conference by tipping his cap. 

“Credit to Michigan,” Gard said. “I thought their aggressiveness, their physicality were two things, knowing that coming in, I did not think we responded to that well. (We) got way out of character at the end of the first half and then even in the second half, with what we were doing offensively.” 

On paper, the Badgers posed matchup problems for Michigan. Wisconsin’s starting frontcourt consists of Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers, each a stretch-5 who shoot at least 39% from beyond the arc. Michigan’s 7-foot-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson, an old-school center most at home in the paint, would have to cover the perimeter. Whomever Dickinson didn’t guard would have at least a three-inch height advantage against the 6-foot-7 senior forward Livers. 

Wisconsin also entered the game as the fourth-best 3-point shooting team in the nation, making 3-pointers at a 41.4% clip. The Wolverines, by contrast, rank 266th at defending the 3-pointer. 

For a Badger offense ranked 10th in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom, there seemed to be vulnerabilities to exploit. Then the game started, and Michigan’s defense rose to the occasion. 

On Wisconsin’s first offensive possession, the Badgers looked to get the 6-foot-11 Reuvers going against Livers. Reuvers backed Livers down onto the block, but Livers blocked the ensuing hook shot. 

That tone continued throughout the game, as the defensive intensity radiated from one player to the next. Five different players blocked shots. Against a Wisconsin team that turns the ball over just 8.2 times per game, Michigan recorded six steals, led by four from Wagner. 

Forty feet from the basket, senior guard Chaundee Brown hounded D’Mitrik Trice. Eli Brooks and Austin Davis each dove on the floor to secure a loose ball. 

“It’s the way we’re taught in practice,” Livers said. “We have a couple drills called ‘Hunger Games’ where there’s no fouls, no calls, out of bounds. You’re fighting for rebounds, you’re fighting for loose balls, you’re fighting for every bucket you get. … We call it ‘Hunger Games’ for a reason. The strong survive. It’s for competitors only, that’s our motto. That second half, when it’s 0:00, that’s when we let up.” 

Michigan has long had the individual pieces to be an elite defensive team. This has been evident to Livers since this year’s group first started practicing. 

“In the scrimmage, when I’m on the opposite team and there’s Franz, Chaundee, Eli, big Austin all on one team, I’m on the other team, coming off a ball screen, going downhill, trying to get a shot and I can’t get it,” Livers said. “Franz is in my face. Eli’s in the gap, Austin’s down low rim protecting. That’s not easy. That’s when I really noticed. I was like, ‘Damn, we’ve got the chance to do good.’ ” 

In the last three games, the individual parts have become part of a whole. Three ranked teams — then-No. 19 Northwestern, then-No. 16 Minnesota and No. 9 Wisconsin — have averaged a mere 59 points per game. That number, too, is somewhat inflated, considering the number of points scored when the outcome was already well in-hand. 

“They do that to a lot of teams,” Gard said. “They get a spark and then it turns into an avalanche. I’ve seen them do that to teams time and time again, we talked about it, try not to put yourselves in that position. It just got to the point where we were taking a lot of jump shots, too many jump shots.” 

Up by 30, Livers placed an exclamation mark on the defensive performance. As Wisconsin’s Jonathan Davis coasted the other way as a steal, Livers hounded him from behind. When Davis went up for the lay-in, Livers pinned it against the glass. 

It was almost too easy. But for Michigan’s defense, clicking on all cylinders, that’s how Tuesday night’s victory went.