COLUMBUS — Rarely has the Michigan men’s basketball team won games with its defense this season.
The Wolverines currently rank 83rd nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, and they have been lambasted all year for their poor defensive outings chock full of blow-bys and complete breakdowns.
But in a game against No. 23 Ohio State’s 11th-ranked KenPom offense and one of the country’s top bigs in forward E.J. Liddell — all without its star center, sophomore Hunter Dickinson, who was sidelined with a stomach illness — Michigan’s defense pulled through.
The key to stopping the Buckeyes is finding a way to stifle Liddell, an assignment given to freshman forward Moussa Diabate.
“It’s always a challenge to play against players like (Liddell),” Diabate said. “They’re the best on their team, and they’re the best players in the country for a reason.”
But while Diabate was assigned as the primary defender, no one man can effectively guard a player like Liddell by himself.
The Wolverines took that into account after Liddell dropped 28 points in the teams’ previous meeting. Each time Liddell received the ball in the post on Sunday, he was immediately doubled — sometimes tripled — forcing him to pass out to one of Ohio State’s less lethal options or attempt a heavily contested shot.
For the most part, it worked. Liddell tallied just 16 points on 40% from the field, notably below his 49.7% on the season. On top of that, Michigan succeeded in peeling off Liddell to close on the open man after the pass, sealing the perimeter and not allowing easy points down low.
This level of execution was punctuated in the final three minutes of the game. With the Wolverines up five, the Buckeyes knocked on the door of a comeback. Again they looked to Liddell down low, where Michigan predictably swarmed him. But as Liddell found center Joey Brunk with a pass that he immediately put up for a shot, Diabate was already there, pummeling the attempt and squashing what would’ve made it a one-possession game.
“I was just trying to get a stop, really,” Diabate said. “I actually don’t remember (it), but it happened. I was just trying to get a stop.”
The Wolverines’ efforts to halt Liddell also reflected their aggressive approach on defense more broadly. Everywhere the ball went, Michigan got hands in passing lanes and bodies in front, forcing Ohio State to make uncomfortable plays.
Michigan acting coach Phil Martelli talked about needing a “hellraiser” after the Wolverines’ loss to Iowa on Thursday. On Sunday, he got multiple.
“That hellraiser was every single one of them,” Martelli said. “Every loose ball, the steals … come on, 11 steals? That has to be our season high. We were on every ball, so we were raising hell on that court — every guy that got in the game.”
Martelli was correct in assuming 11 to be Michigan’s season-high in steals — it bests the Wolverines’ previous high of seven. And each time they picked one of the Buckeyes’ pockets, they not only had a chance at the other end but — perhaps more importantly — took away an Ohio State offensive opportunity.
As a result, Michigan attempted 18 more shots than the Buckeyes while only tallying one more rebound. The Wolverines actually trailed Ohio State in both efficiency from the field and from beyond the arc. In a game decided by six points, forcibly taking away 11 offensive chances was key to Michigan getting the job done.
Without their best player, against one of the best offenses in the country, with their backs against the wall, the Wolverines found themselves desperate for a way to come out of Columbus with a win.
They reached deep into what they had left, and gave all they had on defense. And on Sunday, it happened to be enough.