Heading into Wednesday night’s game against 16th-ranked Minnesota, the 10th-ranked Michigan men’s basketball team found themselves matched up against the Big Ten’s third-leading scorer in Marcus Carr and one of the conference’s top two-way big men in Liam Robbins. On paper, it appeared to be the Wolverines’ toughest defensive assignment yet — by a large margin.
As the final buzzer blared from the scoreboard at Crisler Center, Michigan hadn’t just passed its toughest test. It had aced it with flying colors. In an 82-57 win, the Wolverines completely suffocated a Golden Gopher offense that came into the night averaging nearly 82 points per contest.
“We knew they could score the ball,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “Obviously our focus was on Marcus Carr, the head of the snake as coach (Juwan) Howard would say. Slow him down, and we can slow down all the other guys who feed off him.”
Carr finished the night scoring just 14 points on an inefficient 5/16 shooting, struggling to get into a rhythm for virtually the entire game. His slow start was due in large part to the defensive presence of senior guard Eli Brooks. Brooks barely allowed Carr any airspace when he was on the floor, erasing him from Minnesota’s offensive attack and preventing the team from establishing a flow.
Brooks, who left the game in the second half after losing a tooth on a foul call, was relentless in his pursuit of Carr, and he turned in his most dominant defensive showing against arguably his toughest assignment so far.
“Eli Brooks is known for shutting down the best point guards on each team,” Livers said. “I think he’s one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten if you ask me, but that’s a little biased.”
While Carr was neutralized, his absence from the score sheet paled in comparison to Robbins’s. Robbins, the towering 7-footer and reigning Big Ten Player of the Week following a 27-point, 14-rebound, five block performance against Ohio State on Saturday, entered the night as one of the most fearsome centers in the Big Ten on both ends of the floor, representing a potential buffer to shut down freshman center Hunter Dickinson and end his dominant stretch against opposing big men.
With the way Dickinson played, however, you never would have known. In addition to notching a career-high 28 points, Dickinson turned Robbins into a non-factor, holding him to a mere five points on just eight shots.
“I think before the game I was pretty excited to go against another top big man, not only in the conference but in the country,” Dickinson said. “I respect them so I came in there with a good mindset, and I think coach had a really good game plan for me and the team to come out successful today.”
Added Howard: “(Dickinson versus Robbins) wasn’t a 1-on-1 matchup. It’s all about Minnesota versus Michigan, and Hunter was just effective in helping give us the best opportunities in being able to score and his teammates did a phenomenal job in being patient and delivering the ball on time, on target.”
For Howard, Michigan’s defensive clinic comes as no surprise. After being unsatisfied with his team’s defense in his inaugural campaign, Howard prioritized the defensive side of the ball from day one. Now, it’s paying off.
“We had our coach’s meeting (in the offseason) and I said we gotta be a kickass defensive team,” Howard said. “It’s that simple, if we want to give us a chance to be one of the elite level teams in the conference, but more importantly college basketball.”
Coming off their biggest win of the season, the Wolverines stand alone atop the Big Ten standings. Thanks to their dominant defense, they look the part, and then some.