Following a series of forgettable performances over the last couple weeks, Michigan wanted to turn the page on its season as it moved closer to conference play.
It did just that on Saturday as the Wolverines (5-3 overall) pulled out a 72-58 victory over San Diego State (5-3). Despite some bumps early on, Michigan was able to come away with a resounding win and unlocked a new defensive formula in the process.
“Defense definitely helped the offense in a lot of ways,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “You can shoot the ball well, but defense really helps generate a lot of your offense if you’re out there on the defensive end getting stops.”
In the first half, Michigan was Jekyll and Hyde, at times looking like the team that deserved all the preseason accolades and expectations but at other moments appearing as the Wolverines of late, struggling to put away their competition.
Early on, both teams leaned on their strengths as they felt each other out. The Aztecs, to counter the size discrepancy, focused on outside shooting, draining two threes in the early minutes. The Wolverines pounded the ball down low and got most of their points inside the paint. Through the first eight minutes both offenses were relatively stagnant, and the score stood at just 10-10.
That changed when Howard subbed freshman guard Frankie Collins and the team came to life. By the under eight timeout, Michigan had surged ahead to a 28-18 lead. The Wolverines found their touch from three and made four from beyond the arc in that stretch — with freshman forward Caleb Houstan knocking down two. The Wolverines also started to impose their will defensively, using the full court press to generate turnovers and create offense.
“I think that’s something that we have in our back pocket when we need to use it,” Dickinson said of the full court press. “Coach did a really good job of using it. And it really worked.”
Michigan finally looked like a team that could compete for a national title. But as has been the theme for Michigan, it couldn’t keep up the consistency and watched its first half lead slip away. After going up 30-21 with five and half minutes left in the first half, the Wolverines went cold, not scoring again until the two minute mark. When sophomore center Hunter Dickinson drained a three seconds before the halftime buzzer, it gave Michigan just a narrow 36-34 lead — after looking like it might run away with the game earlier in the half.
But in the second half, the Wolverines used their defensive pressure to open up the offense and slowly pull away. Early on it was Houston who continued to be the engine driving them — finding a variety of ways to score. After going 3-3 on his first half shots, all from 3-point range, Houstan got more aggressive in the second. He drained two mid-range shots early on, then just before the under-12 timeout, took a pass from three, drove by his defender and drew a foul at the rim.
“Caleb has been doing great,” Howard said. “What’s been beautiful about working with Caleb is he’s never ever came in a game hunting, just trying to make shots. He’s been trying to impact the game in more ways than just on the offensive end.”
But above any offensive contribution, it was the defense that clamped down and made life difficult for the Aztecs. Michigan went on a 14-0 run starting at the 14-minute mark, finding easy buckets inside and then turning right back around and forcing San Diego State into turnover situations. By the under eight timeout, the lead had ballooned to 61-43.
“That was our best defensive stretch of the season,” Dickinson said. “I think that’s a big reason why we were able to pull away and just kind of get that big lead that we were able to maintain over the course of the second half.”
In the final minutes, Howard continued to leave his key players on the court including Dickinson, who finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds, and Collins who came in for starting guard DeVante’ Jones at the 16:30 minute mark and never left the game again.
The run felt like a signature moment that could spell the start of a turnaround for the Wolverines. In the second half Michigan fired on all cylinders and for one of the first times all season, left no doubt about who the better team on the court was.