Less than five minutes into the second half, with a 12 point lead, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s defense faced a test. With the Wolverines running in circles following Jackson State’s ball movement, it seemed as though they would fail that test. With Michigan appearing lost, Tigers guard Ken Evans drove into the paint, positioning himself for an easy layup. But junior center Hunter Dickinson had other plans.
As the ball left Evans’s hand, Dickinson elevated and swatted the ball away from the basket, bailing the scampering Wolverines out. It was Dickinson’s fourth block of the game, and Michigan’s third of the half. In a contest where the Wolverines’ defense struggled, their saving grace came from protecting the rim.
“We have guys that are very competitive, and they take the one on one challenge,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Wednesday. “And they also do a very good job of contesting shots, and that’s pretty elite level, being able to time (blocks).”
Although the Wolverines maintained a comfortable lead for the majority of the second half, its defense proved ineffective more often than it should in this type of non-conference matchup. Those weaknesses enabled Jackson State to remain neck-and-neck with Michigan until the end of the first half, and for the Tigers to shrink a 17-point Wolverines advantage to just six points in the final two minutes of play.
“Continuing to work on our defense and playing hard and communicating is a big area of emphasis, and we’re trying to focus on it in practice,” graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn said. “But a win’s a win, and we can learn a lot from (both) wins and losses, so we’re taking it step by step.”
Michigan may not have shown its ability to mesh into one unit defensively on Wednesday, but it did show some of the strides it’s made to withstand those lapses. Specifically, the Wolverines displayed the integral role that blocks can play in their defense. As a team, the Wolverines collected 13 blocks — five more than their previous season-high which came in the opening game against a Division II opponent.
Perhaps the most promising part of Michigan’s impressive block performance was its depth. That rim protecting prowess didn’t come from just one source. In fact, four of the five Wolverines’ starters recorded at least one block, with four total players on the team having multiple.
In general, Michigan looked unsure of itself defensively, lacking communication and coming out flat, playing like five individuals not one team. There was a clear lack of cohesion on that end, and on many occasions, it enabled open looks and easy baskets for Jackson State. As the season ramps up, the Wolverines have a need to seal those holes and limit preventable scores.
Even in a victory, Michigan understands its shortcomings on the defensive end and the importance of forming a succinct unit.
“We’re not where we want to be defensively,” freshman wing Jett Howard said. “… We’re just trying to get in rhythm on the offensive end and defensive end, and hopefully we’re better by January, but we’re working hard.”
As the Wolverines approach matchups against ranked teams in Virginia and Kentucky, followed by a slate of competitive Big Ten opponents, they need to find their defensive identity.
Against the Tigers, Michigan displayed a way it can work towards one.