EVANSTON – Over a stretch of seven days in late December, the Michigan men’s basketball team seemed to have forgotten its identity.
In losing two of three games from Dec. 23 to Dec. 30, the Wolverines gave up more than 71 points per game.
The defensive intensity that defined Michigan’s 11-1 start to the season had vanished in losses to UCLA (Dec. 23) and Georgetown (Dec. 30).
Little did the Wolverines know, that identity was merely hiding in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The Maize and Blue allowed just five second-half field goals en route to a 58-46 victory over Northwestern.
The Wolverines held the Wildcats without a field goal for nearly seven minutes to close the game.
Given the similarities between the Princeton-style offenses run by Georgetown and the Wildcats, Saturday’s defensive showing was impressive. But the improved defense may have been due to what Michigan (2-0 Big Ten, 14-3 overall) didn’t do.
“Instead of doing our traditional denying defense, we kind of took a step back,” senior Dion Harris said. “We let them catch it on the wing, and defended for the backdoor. I think it helped us a lot.”
It didn’t hurt that the Wolverine big men added six blocks and altered numerous other shot attempts. The Wildcats shot just 19 percent from the field in the second half and 32 percent for the game.
Michigan had to deal with a very deliberate Wildcat attack. Northwestern (0-2, 10-5) tried to use up all 35 seconds of the shot clock on each possession. The Wolverines wanted to use their superior athleticism and get out on the fast break.
Northwestern’s strategy won out; Michigan failed to eclipse 30 points in either half. The first half ended with both teams deadlocked at 28, and the 5,793 fans in attendance anticipating an upset.
“That’s where you have to show poise and patience, knowing that you aren’t going to get as many fast-break opportunities,” Harris said.
With its usual firepower on the offensive end blunted, the Wolverines instead persevered on defense.
“We came in saying we had to stay more disciplined than we had been,” senior Brent Petway said. “Against (Northwestern), you have to stay disciplined for the entire 35 seconds, and I thought we did an excellent job of that.”
With the game crawling at a snail’s pace, Michigan had to create extra opportunities for themselves. The Wolverines pounded the glass, grabbing 12 offensive rebounds, including nine in the second half. Petway led the team with eight boards.
“They just killed us on the backboards,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “We would stop them two or three times in a row, and they would get second shots.”
Unlike Wednesday’s conference opener against Illinois, in which seniors Harris and Lester Abram led the Wolverines to victory, Saturday was freshman Reed Baker’s time to shine.
The Fort Myers, Fla. native had a team-high 11 points, including three 3-pointers against Northwestern’s zone defense.
And after altering his lineup for games against Army and Georgetown, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker stuck with the lineup he used in the win over the Illini and in the season’s first 13 games. Seniors Harris, Petway, Abram and Courtney Sims started alongside junior wing Ron Coleman.
But in the end, the game wasn’t decided on a certain lineup or a big shot. The Wolverines didn’t pull away in the second half until they found their old, reliable friend: defense.
“We talked about how the second half was going to be a game for the taking, and whatever team would dig in a little more could muster out a victory, and I thought we played tremendous defensively,” Amaker said. “I liked the energy we played with defensively, and we mixed up our defenses a little bit to see if we could take away some of their rhythm on the offensive end. We wanted to disjoint them.”
The win was the Wolverines’ second on the road this season, and puts them in a tie atop the Big Ten standings with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa.
“I think everybody is on the same page right now, from top to bottom,” Harris said. “And I think we’re back to the normal way that we’ve been playing.”
Notes: Freshman guard K’Len Morris will have season-ending surgery to repair an injured shoulder. The procedure will likely take place in the next two weeks.
Morris has been out of the Michigan lineup since he injured the shoulder in practice on Nov. 28 when he fell awkwardly on a dunk attempt. The team is hoping he will be granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA.