Michigan cruises to wins with suffocating, versatile defense

Sunday, November 15, 2015 - 4:44pm

DETROIT — When the Michigan women’s basketball team found itself too close for comfort against lesser competition this weekend, it turned to the press. The Wolverines faced Binghamton at home and Detroit in the Motor City — two teams that didn’t win more than seven games last season — on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

Michigan entered the contests expected to cruise to easy wins from tip-off. But the Bearcats and Titans forced the Wolverines turn up the intensity on defense in order to pull away for 90-62 and 88-61 wins. 

The increased effort on defense included switching between zone and man defense while implementing three-quarter and half-court presses. When opponents found themselves double-teamed and searching for passing lanes, they often threw errant passes, allowing Michigan to regain possession.

“If we can get stops, stops can lead to our transition,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “When other teams score, they have an opportunity to get back, and we don’t get as easy transition points. Our kids want to run, so I bribe them; if they get stops, they can run.”

The defense also led to an up-tempo Wolverine offense, giving them the advantage to score baskets with ease. Saturday, they scored 26 points off 18 forced turnovers. In Sunday’s contest, they scored 20 points off 16 turnovers. Freshman guard Nicole Munger led the defensive effort at home, earning three steals, while freshman center Hallie Thome picked up three blocks in Detroit. While Michigan didn’t fill up the defensive stat sheet, it made it difficult for teams to get into an offensive rhythm.

Junior guard Sierra Thompson said that the press is one of the team’s “go-tos.” In its first two games, the press has made opponents uncomfortable as they haven’t been able to run their offenses at their preferred pace. Binghamton and Detroit were both rushed and lured into making long passes, making it easy pickings for a Michigan defense that looks to create turnovers.

Barnes Arico changed her team’s lineup for the beginning of the second half against the Bearcats. She said the Wolverines are still configuring their rotation, but their multitude of lineups for different situations display their versatility.

“That was a key thing for us to be able to change the defense,” Barnes Arico said. “That’s what’s exciting about this year’s team. We have the depth to be able to do that; we have different lineups that can play better defense. We have a lineup that can play great press defense, we have a lineup that can play a half-court defense, so it’s nice to be able to see that.”

Michigan began to separate itself from its mid-major opposition just after the first quarter. After the first frame against Binghamton, the Wolverines led by five points, 22-17. Against Detroit, they only led 19-16. But in the second quarter, Michigan’s defense stepped up, allowing the Wolverines to extend their to leads to 11 and 22 at the half against the Bearcats and Titans, respectively.

There are multiple reasons why the Wolverines have not been able to obtain a commanding lead by the end of the first quarter, but mostly because it takes a while to get settled into a game and develop a flow. It's also not practical to run the defense that Michigan runs for the entirety of a game. That would lead to player fatigue, doing more harm than good.

“I thought that we forced a ton of turnovers, but I liked how we changed the tempo,” Barnes Arico said. “I think it’s something that can be effective in spurts, I don’t think we can go for a long period of time. But if we throw it at somebody three minutes here, and come back three minutes later, I think it will be really effective.”

By the end of each of the two weekend contests, the Wolverines pulled away by at least 25 points. Michigan didn’t let up by letting its lead dwindle, even when it already had the game in control.

The Wolverines won’t always have games against less-talented teams, but their defensive strategy is invaluable practice for when contests will be more evenly matched. The weekend was a solid tune-up and chance to practice defensive sets in games, because once Michigan heads into Big Ten play, its suffocating defense may be its best feature.