Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Eli Brooks recognized that the Michigan men’s basketball team needed to “take the next step” in terms of its 3-point defense.
The Wolverines’ goal, according to the senior guard, is to limit the opposition to six 3-pointers per game. In its last contest against Maryland, Michigan conceded a season-high 13 3-pointers, allowing the Terrapins to shoot 9-of-11 from distance in the first half alone.
In an 85-66 throttling of Northwestern, the Wolverines flipped the switch.
“This was an inspiring game to watch on how we guarded the 3-point line,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Yes, we ended up winning the game at Maryland, but I wasn’t happy at all with how we guarded the 3-point line as of late. The answer today was to get to their shooters. … Our job was to make sure we did not lose them, keep our head on a swivel. Contest, contest without fouling and most importantly have better activity on and off the ball.”
Howard knew the challenge that the Wildcats’ offense posed for his defense on the perimeter. Northwestern entered the game as the best 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten, shooting 42.4% from long range. On the other hand, Michigan began the night as the worst in the conference in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to make 3-pointers at a 37% clip — 247th in the nation.
“Just dialed in and locked in, really,” senior guard Chaundee Brown said after Sunday’s game. “We watched a lot of film on Northwestern. We knew that they were a really good team, they beat a lot of ranked teams. We just studied their film. We knew what they liked to do and we shut them down.”
On Sunday night, the Wildcats never found their rhythm. Ten minutes into the game, they had yet to make a 3-pointer. They finished just 5-of-18 from beyond the arc and their three leading 3-point shooters — guards Boo Buie and Ty Berry and forward Miller Kopp — combined to go 0-of-5 from deep.
“I think in this game, we were more worried about the cutters,” Brooks said. “They don’t run as many ball screens or 1-on-1 ISO plays. It’s more back cuts and those kinda looks. So just getting into defenders and making them feel a body before we ran them was big.”
Added sophomore forward Franz Wagner: “I think we’re very focused. We knew their main plays. The staff and scout team did a great job of preparing us. We executed what we were told, basically. Tried to minimize their three main players, or actually four.”
Wagner took the onus upon himself to neutralize one of those players, drawing the matchup with 6-foot-10 forward Pete Nance. In Northwestern’s last game against Iowa, Nance caused fits for the Hawkeyes and Luka Garza, posting a career-high 21 points and three 3-pointers.
Tonight, in the opening four minutes, Nance singlehandedly powered the Wildcats’ offense, notching all eight points. From that point on, he managed just two more points and missed his only 3-point try. Wagner, meanwhile, recorded five blocks and a steal.
“Franz took the 1-on-1 challenge of guarding Nance,” Brooks said. “He was just active. He’s becoming more and more of a complete defender. That showed today. Just relying, being the most physical team out there, sticking to our principles and making them score was big today.”
By having Wagner guard Nance instead of allotting the assignment to freshman center Hunter Dickinson, Michigan aimed to limit the core of Northwestern’s offense: 3-point opportunities.
“Nance is a big trigger man in ball screens, where he’s setting the screens or slipping,” Howard said. “We needed a guy who had the length, also smart and is gonna do it and be very detailed. And Franz is that guy. He doesn’t care who I put on him, he’s gonna do whatever he can to do his job, and he sure enough did it.”
In Wagner, Brooks, Brown and senior forward Isaiah Livers, the Wolverines have the requisite individual pieces to be one of the top defensive teams in the Big Ten. The offense, which has scored at least 80 points in three straight games, has hit its stride. And if Sunday’s stifling of Northwestern is any indication, the defense isn’t too far behind.