STATE COLLEGE — The Michigan men’s basketball team has had a glaring weakness this entire season: its defense.
The Wolverines rank fourth-worst in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency, above only Maryland, Nebraska and Minnesota. Michigan has consistently watched opponents execute ball screens, break down defenders one-on-one and find high-percentage open shots with relative ease.
However, Tuesday night against Penn State, the Wolverines’ defense wasn’t the reason they lost — rather, it was their only shining light in their narrow victory.
“A lot of guys came in and contributed on the defensive side,” graduate guard DeVante’ Jones said. “So that was the main thing for us. I mean, if the shots (are) not falling, then you gotta rely on your defense. And that was big for us today.”
But Michigan didn’t start with the staunch defense that Jones described. Instead, it saw the same story that had played out all season developing once again.
The Nittany Lions were draining shot after shot and not for an outburst of skill or tough buckets over a contested defender, but simply because they were wide open. Again and again, Penn State found open men and easy matchups that led to advantageous shot opportunities — many of which found the mark.
The Nittany Lions, who normally shoot just 42.8% from the field, were shooting 57.7% at the half, despite making just two of their last eight attempts going into the break.
The Wolverines needed a change coming out of the locker room to bring Penn State back to Earth.
“In the first half, we allowed their shooters to get open looks, too many paint touches,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Look back to some of the first half stats; they scored 18 points in the paint. They also shot the ball extremely well. … So I talked about it at half time that it’s too easy. Everything they’re getting is too easy.”
Out of the break, Michigan’s defense was a far cry from the paper-thin showing it displayed in the first half. The Wolverines forced the Nittany Lions into tougher shooting situations, pushed their possessions down to the end of the shot clock and eliminated their once-frequent breakdowns leading to free points.
The result: Penn State went 0-for-8 in the first six minutes of the half, and finished having scored just 23 points on 7-for-29 from the field.
“We’ve been in this position before, getting down at half, just having a slow start,” Jones said. “… I think (Terrance Williams II) and the other guys came in and did a great job of helping us play defense.”
The defensive pressure gave Michigan the opportunities it needed down the stretch. In a game where their offense was not up to par, the Wolverines needed their defense to hold it together enough for them to escape Happy Valley with a win.
For once, Michigan’s defense delivered, doing everything it needed to in the second half to stay afloat.
“We did a really good job of keeping the man in front when they did touch the paint,” Howard said. “Well then we limit them to one-shot opportunities because our guys did a really good job of boxing out. But our activity and energy and communication was very solid in the second half.”