Michigan struggled on the defensive end against Arizona, failing to contest shots.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Sixty percent from the field. Fifty-eight percent from beyond the arc.

Arizona State scored at-will, from wherever it wanted and whenever it wanted, throughout its dismemberment of the No. 20 Michigan basketball team at the Legend’s Classic final in Barclays Center Thursday night. 

As the Sun Devils continually picked apart the Wolverines’ defense, Michigan’s defenders were nowhere to be found whenever challenged. Like a bull, Arizona State took full advantage, trampling that defense and keeping the Wolverines out of striking distance all night long. 

“Some of (Arizona State’s) shots were uncontested,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “That was disappointing.” 

That defensive disappointment was evident from the start of the game — where the Wolverines’ defense never appeared. Michigan’s struggle to put up any defensive resistance buried its chances as the team quickly fell behind, while the Sun Devils sizzled from the field in response. 

The Wolverines made protecting their basket look like a chore, and one they simply weren’t willing to complete. Their inability to regularly contest shots, their challenges in working through on-ball screens and their lack of communication ensured they wouldn’t be able to keep pace with Arizona State, which went on to score a season-high 87 points. 

“I think they got a lot of open looks that we didn’t really have good contests (for),” junior center Hunter Dickinson said. “And I think that’s where it starts, just contesting more shots.” 

As Dickinson outlined, it’s really not that complicated. Get a hand in the face of the shooter, disrupt their regular shooting form and rhythm, just make it harder for them to deploy their usual shooting form and their shot will likely be affected.

But time and time again, the Sun Devils’ shooters found space to shine. Without good shot contests, they were able to shoot in rhythm, making the basket look bigger and bigger as scoring got easier. Oftentimes, those open looks came off screens, as defenders failed to communicate and adjust quickly. 

Arizona State guard Austin Nunez — who finished with 15 points and was 3-for-5 from deep — was a beneficiary of Michigan’s screen struggles. The Wolverines tried to go over a screen set for him in the first half, but that left Nunez open with a defender safely behind him. Graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn was left with two scorers to guard and didn’t commit to the shooter, leaving Nunez open for the triple. 

It sounds like a small detail, but the extra space from poorly executed screen defense makes all the difference, allowing shooters like Nunez to heat up. The same was true for Arizona State’s leading scorer, guard Desmond Cambridge Jr., as late rotations helped him find rhythm from range. It also opened backdoor cuts and drives as he turned the court into his heat map. 

While Michigan’s effort looked suspect at times, it was often a lack of communication that made shot contesting, lane filling and screen defending so laborious. 

“Our voices (weren’t) there like (they) should have been on the defensive end,” Howard said. 

And what came out of that lack of communication? Dickinson said it best: 

“I think on the defensive end we were just a little lost out there,” he said. “And we have to take ownership of that.” 

Indeed, the Wolverines’ confusion handed the Sun Devils easy looks. A screen near the top of the key in the first half shifted forward Tarris Reed Jr. on Arizona State guard Luther Muhammed. Reed signaled for a switch back, but help never came on the mismatch and a scene that became all-too familiar ensued: the Sun Devils got an easy bucket. 

No matter how effectively a team can score the ball, it means nothing if it can’t get stops. Against Arizona State, stops became a rarity for Michigan. Whether off cuts or from downtown, the Wolverines chronically left shooters alone. 

And Michigan’s defense was lost in New York.