Just a few weeks ago, the Michigan men’s basketball team was completely reliant on its offense in order to win.
The Wolverines’ 91-85 win over Nebraska on Jan. 14 showcased what many thought would be the strategy Michigan would have to take to pick up any future wins.
Even Michigan head coach John Beilein, knew to a degree, that the Wolverines had to rely solely on their ability to outscore opponents to find any success in the conference schedule.
But Beilein believed that inciting any action from the Wolverines on the defensive end would halt their dependence on putting up massive point tallies to win games.
“We can score points as you can see,” Beilein said following that win. “Trying to outscore people, you still have to defend better. We’re not doing that. We don’t have the depth or right players to do that. We’ve got to find these little steps to try and get better.”
A month after those comments, Michigan won a basketball game — thanks in large part to its defense.
On Sunday, the Wolverines prevented Indiana from finding any sort of rhythm on offense, forcing the Hoosiers to commit 15 turnovers in Michigan’s 75-63 win.
Though it might be hard to believe, the same team that gave up 85 points to the Cornhuskers’ unspectacular offense in Ann Arbor transformed into the one that shut down Indiana offensively for 40 minutes in Bloomington.
“I want to embrace the fact that we had a great overall game, start to finish,” said senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. “We had a great defensive effort and great defensive principle. We stayed in front of guys and knew the scouting report. And most of all, when the going got tough, we never fumbled.”
For Michigan, simplifying its defensive scheme and focusing on the basics has helped it get the stops it needs.
No player better exemplified the Wolverines’ defensive transformation than junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Facing a difficult matchup with the Hoosiers’ lead scorer, James Blackmon Jr., Abdur-Rahkman didn’t give the Indiana guard any breathing room on the perimeter and took advantage of his weakness in turning the ball over.
Blackmon finished with just seven points while committing two turnovers. Abdur-Rahkman had similar success shutting down Blackmon in the Ann Arbor leg of the series on Jan. 26, but the fact that he was able to replicate it in Bloomington was a good sign moving forward for the Wolverine defense.
Michigan’s perimeter defense overall, which had the Big Ten’s worst 3-point conversion rate against for much of the season, has steadily improved, and turned in its best performance to date against Indiana.
The Wolverines forced the Hoosiers into shooting 21 percent from behind the arc and converting just four triples the entire game.
Indiana entered as one of the conference’s best 3-point shooting teams, not just because of its talented guard play, but because the Hoosiers have a frontcourt that is unafraid to launch long shots as well.
Indiana center Thomas Bryant entered Sunday’s game shooting 45 percent from deep, but didn’t hit a single one of his four attempted threes. Sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson stayed in front of Bryant outside the post, and provided help on defense to prevent Bryant from expanding his game and becoming dangerous outside the paint.
Abdur-Rahkman, Wilson and Wagner have all also become more vocal on defense, and that has helped Michigan improve its weaknesses on the defensive end, particularly on the perimeter.
“It’s really interesting going into a huddle when I hear (Wagner), or I hear (Wilson), or (senior wing Zak Irvin) instructing other players about what we have to do on defense,” Beilein said. “That’s really healthy for us.”
The Wolverines’ mentality on the defensive end has completely changed in the past month. While there seemed to be apathy for making defensive stops culminating in the Wolverines’ blowout at Illinois and the barnburner against the Cornhuskers, Michigan knows it has the bodies and talent to be a top-half Big Ten defense.
Walton has taken charge in changing mentalities from the point guard position, becoming a more physical and aggressive presence defending opposing guards. That mindset has trickled down to his teammates, who he believes can all become elite defenders.
“We have so much defensive potential with all five guys being able to stay in front of their guy,” Walton said. “There’s a lot of things that go into guarding guys; it’s schemes, it’s different actions. Just making sure we’re on top of that with the same effort level, it’s the only difference.”
Michigan’s defense, though, still has several faults. The Wolverines still aren’t a great rebounding team, and were outrebounded again by the Hoosiers 32-29. Their lack of depth puts a cap on how aggressive individual players can be to keep Michigan out of foul trouble.
But the Wolverines have an offense powerful enough to overcome some of the lingering problems that remain. Fixing its mentality was Michigan’s biggest hurdle on the defensive end, and Sunday showed how far the Wolverines have come and are willing to go in attempting to fix that problem.
“The energy on that side of the ball is just at the level where it was elite in the early conference and early season,” Walton said. “… People know that when we get stops, we have such a potent offense. Nine times out of 10, when we get stops, we’re going to win.”
As Michigan enters the homestretch of the regular season, its defense appears to be coming together and helping to win games now more than ever. Holding Indiana to 60 and Michigan State to 57 points earlier in the week shows the potential that the Wolverines have been holding back defensively.
Now Michigan has to find a way to bottle that intensity and ensure it can last.
“Just knowing that’s the hump we have to get over that made such a great story for us earlier in the season,” Walton said. “Getting back to enjoying playing defense and stopping people is all the difference.”