NEW YORK CITY, NY. — It’s not a secret anymore: the Michigan men’s basketball team is good at defense.
The Wolverines finished the regular season ranked 11th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency — the previous high for coach John Beilein’s team was 37th in 2012-13. In its past four games, Michigan has surrendered an average of just 64.2 points per game, and two of those contests came against top-three scoring offenses in the Big Ten.
But when Michigan matched up against Nebraska on Jan. 18, defense wasn’t a strong suit — nothing was in the Cornhuskers’ 72-52 rout. So in Friday’s second-round matchup against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines knew they had to fight fire with fire using their staunch defense.
Michigan answered, and the Cornhuskers were burned at the stake — they shot just shot 30.2 percent on 16-for-53 shooting and coughed the ball up 10 times. In a 7:47 span in the first half, Nebraska didn’t record a single field goal. Beilein credits a masterful scouting report by his assistant coach, Luke Yaklich.
“(Yaklich) is on everything, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Beilein said. “He’s got his scout but he also watches every game. I get emails at five in the morning that he’s just watched three games. He’s on it, and he’s really done a great job with our guys and getting them to buy into the gaps we want to be in and taking pride in individual defense.”
Yaklich, perhaps, may not have considered just how beautifully orchestrated his game plan was. The Wolverines didn’t just shut down the Cornhuskers, they looked good doing it too. Michigan recorded six seismic blocks that sparked irreversibile momentum each time. The Daily looked at each swat, ranking the top three in terms of looks, significance and celebrations:
1) 12:39 in the first half — Jon Teske
If opposites don’t attract, then Teske having the flashiest play of the game is going to need some sort of explanation.
The sophomore center was anchoring the paint as he usually does when Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. charged toward the rim. At the peak of Palmer’s jump to the basket, Teske fit his whole hand on the basketball … and kept it there. Teske corralled the ball to his hip and outletted it to fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson for a fast break. Robinson effortlessly laid the ball to extend Michigan’s lead to seven and put most of Madison Square Garden on its feet.
“It felt good,” Teske said. “… Just saw him coming down the lane and had to do my job and protect the rim. I was fortunate enough to block it, take the ball away and spark a transition offensively.”
Added freshman guard Jordan Poole: “He doesn’t block a ton of shots so when they went down they lit it up. Jon had some big time blocks and got us a bit amped up.”
Between the audacity of Teske to not let the ball hit the floor, the ensuing layup and the unlikely pairing of Teske and the highlight reel, he earned the top spot with ease.
2) 14:43 in the first half — Moritz Wagner
Wagner’s presence on this list should hardly come as a surprise. The junior forward is no stranger to being the center of attention. But when it comes to emphatic blocks, Wagner has infrequently found himself in the conversation. On Friday, he made himself quite visible in the discussion.
Despite trailing 9-8, Wagner’s 3-pointer at the 15:03 jolted life into the Wolverines, who were gearing up for an impending scoring run. When Nebraska’s Isaiah Roby tried to bully Wagner down low and stymie the run, Wagner had other plans. The junior palmed the top of the ball on Roby’s ascent, slamming the ball to the floor and out of bounds. Wagner subsequently furrowed his brows and triumphantly yelled in front of the reporters and fans behind the basket. The Cornhuskers wouldn’t record a field goal for another four minutes.
The aesthetic beauty of Wagner’s block coupled with his red-faced celebration afterwards warranted a second-place selection. If the Wolverines scored on the following possession (they didn’t), his ranking may have been reconsidered.
3) 16:18 in the second half — Charles Matthews
Matthews has been an athletic mainstay throughout the year, but has rarely registered any earth-shattering plays. It took less than a two-minute span to have two flashy plays on Friday.
After a swatted jumper at the 18:05 mark, the redshirt sophomore swatted a long jumper from Palmer and grabbed the ball in the air. Shortly after, from opposite sides of the basket down the baseline, Matthews met a charging Glynn Watson Jr. at the rim. In similar fashion to Wagner, the ball rocketed to the ground and bounced out of bounds. With the excitement of Matthews’ first block still in memory, the Wolverines’ bench snapped up exuberantly after his second swat.
“I’m not really thinking about highlight plays,” Matthews said. “I was just trying to just help the team and make the right play. It just so happened to be a nice one.”
Though Watson sank a jumper on the following play, a Robinson layup the following possession kept up Michigan’s momentum. Matthews’ emphatic block was pretty, but given Michigan’s already wide lead and Watson’s response, it is relegated to the No. 3 spot.