The last time the Michigan men’s basketball team faced off against Michigan State, it didn’t just lose — it was blown out.
The Spartans bullied the Wolverines on multiple levels — in transition, on ball screens and almost every facet of the game.
In order for Michigan to flip the script and come out of its second matchup against Michigan State with a much-needed victory, it needed to improve.
“We’re confident in ourselves and we felt that we were the better team going in,” freshman wing Calen Houstan said. “We made some adjustments based on the first game we had, so we were confident going in.”
The adjustments were best showcased by Michigan’s transition defense. The last time the two teams played, the Spartans scored 28 on the fast break. This time, though, they only scored nine. And acting head coach Phil Martelli took the time to acknowledge it:
“It’s very, very significant to be walking out of here with Michigan State scoring nine transition points. I’m proud of that.”
The improvements didn’t just come by luck or by trusting that things would get better — they were a concentrated effort by the Wolverines. It was Michigan’s biggest focus coming into Tuesday. It knew that in order for things to play out differently, it needed to be better.
“(Transition defense) was number one, number two and number three,” Martelli said about Monday’s practice. “The only thing that we did live yesterday was we put the ball on the baseline, and we had them sprint back. All five guys sprint back. Get in the wall and stop the ball.”
There’s more to it than running and finding your man in the open court. It helps to make shots, which the Wolverines did do this time around. But it was apparent from the game’s opening moments, when Michigan players were sprinting down the court and pointing out their defensive assignments, that the Wolverines were trying to make a tangible difference.
But simply getting into position can only take a team so far. When the ball is stopped and the pace is slowed they have to be able to defend in the halfcourt as well. Last time, Michigan struggled in that area as well, specifically when attempting to guard the Spartans’ ball screen offense. What was a season-long weakness for the Wolverines got exposed on Jan. 29 at the Breslin Center.
Tuesday, though, Michigan made life very difficult for Michigan State by forcing the Spartans to make mid-range shots. That carried over into the Wolverines’ defense down low. After being even at 34 in points in the paint in the last meeting, Michigan gave up just 28 and outscored Michigan State by 18 in the category.
“I was going over it with (Chris Hunter), trying to do different things to get them off guard and not just have their feet planted in the ground,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said. “(I) just tried to work for a deeper position. That’s a big thing he and Juwan talked about.”
So much went into the game on Tuesday, so many reasons that the Wolverines won by 17 this time after losing by 16 on Jan. 29, but none showed more than their ability to adjust. Michigan took the wounds from the last meeting and made sure that they didn’t happen again. In March that’s a valuable skill, and the Wolverines will try to make sure that it’s one that they continue to have.