WEST LAFAYETTE – If defense really wins championships, the Michigan basketball team shouldn’t expect to earn any hardware in the near future.

Morgan Morel
Senior Chris Hunter goes for a block attempt against Purdue center Matt Kiefer. (Rodrigo Gaya/Daily)

On Saturday, Purdue became the third consecutive team to benefit from Michigan’s defensive woes. Coming into the game as the Big Ten’s second-lowest scoring team, the Boilermakers netted 84 points against the hapless Wolverine defense.

“We couldn’t really stop them,” Michigan center Courtney Sims said. “I didn’t think our offense was that bad. We couldn’t play defense for the third straight game.”

With two of Michigan’s best perimeter defenders – Lester Abram and Dion Harris – out with injuries, Purdue looked to exploit the Wolverines’ backup guards.

“The last couple of games, they were having problems with penetration,” Purdue guard Bryant Dillon said. “So the coaches told us to be in attack mode.”

The Boilermakers’ strategy paid off. Against man-to-man defense, Purdue’s guards consistently blew past their defenders with quick first steps, forcing a Michigan post player to rotate over and help. More often than not, this left a Boilermaker forward wide open for an easy lay-up or a crowd-pleasing dunk.

But the drive-and-dish wasn’t Michigan’s sole defensive weakness. In the first half, Purdue caught fire against the Wolverines’ zone. The Boilermakers patiently worked the ball around the perimeter, eventually finding open looks from beyond the arc. They drilled 6-of-10 first-half 3-point attempts, which helped them build a commanding 20-point halftime lead.

The Boilermakers’ offense also dominated the Wolverines in the paint. Wide-bodied forward Gary Ware had control down low, backing in Michigan’s post players and setting himself up for easy buckets. Ware’s physical play allowed him to score 14 points in just 21 minutes.

“We just need to have some pride on defense,” Sims said. “It seems like we have no pride – we’re just trying to go back down the court and score.”

Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said, the Wolverines’ defensive woes were rooted in their first-half offensive struggles. While Purdue took advantage of nearly every open opportunity early on, Michigan couldn’t convert its clean looks.

“It’s demoralizing,” Amaker said. “If you’ve ever played or coached, it’s very difficult to maintain your energy and focus on the defensive end when you’re not scoring.”

But even when Michigan’s shots started falling in the second half, the Wolverines failed to pick up any momentum defensively. Every time a couple Michigan shots fell, the Boilermakers stormed right back with a bucket. In the second half, Purdue scored a solid 37 points, and its lead never fell below 12.

The Wolverines’ recent defensive struggles have come as an unpleasant surprise for a team that jumped out to a 16-3 record thanks largely to its defensive presence. Coming into the game against Iowa on Feb. 4, the Wolverines’ opponents averaged 62.8 points per game – a solid total for a team that likes to run the fast break. Michigan had never given up more than 80 points in a game.

But the Iowa contest triggered a monumental defensive collapse, and the Hawkeyes scored 94 points on 65-percent shooting. Against Ohio State five days later, Michigan once again gave up 94 points. And on Saturday, the Wolverines let Purdue’s anemic offense put up 84 points on 61.2-percent shooting. Not surprisingly, Michigan lost all three games.

“We have to play with a little more energy on (defense), a little more intensity,” guard Daniel Horton said. “That’s something I never thought I’d say about our team. Playing for coach Amaker, I think we’ve always had a passion about playing defense. But it seems like we’ve been lacking that lately.”

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