I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Michigan didn’t play one second of zone defense in the first half.
I cringed after the first media timeout, thinking that Michigan coach Tommy Amaker might want to throw a change of pace at Minnesota.
Even after three Gopher timeouts, I scanned the court. Luckily, I didn’t see the players bouncing up and down in a zone defense.
Over the past three games, Wolverine fans became all to familiar with their team falling back into a zone, allowing its opponents to drain open 3-pointers.
It seemed like Michigan coach Tommy Amaker wasn’t willing to trust his team to play man defense without Lester Abram, Dion Harris and Jerret Smith.
But last night, Amaker stuck with a gritty man-to-man defense, and the Wolverines surrendered just six points in the first 14 minutes of the game. At the end of the first half, the Gophers had totaled just 20.
Everyone in Crisler Arena saw the difference right from the start. Minnesota took its first two offensive possessions with well below 10 seconds on the shot clock. Both time, the Wolverines didn’t let the Gophers settle into a comfort zone.
Michigan played arguably its best defensive half of the year. But, this resurgence leads me to one question.
Where has this kind of intensity and effort been the last three games?
Don’t get me wrong. The Wolverines desperately needed to right a sinking ship, and they ran the Gophers out of Crisler Arena.
But if a team can turn it on with a snap of the fingers, then it’s just as easy to relax and let its guard down.
And games against Iowa, Ohio State and Purdue definitely proved that.
Maybe the Wolverines had their heads in the sky after joining the top 25 for the first time since 1998. Talk circled that Michigan finally had meshed its talent with its play on the court. Two weeks ago, the Wolverines seemed not just a lock to make the NCAA Tournament but also a frontrunner for the Big Ten crown.
Then they ran into Iowa, Ohio State and lowly Purdue.
Granted, losing Harris in the second half of the Ohio State game deflated the team. But that’s no excuse for the way Michigan came out against the Boilermakers.
Finally, emotion returned to the Wolverines last night. They played loose but intense. They didn’t force shots but actually ran a semblance of an offense. Junior Brent Petway electrified the crowd when he skied to block Spencer Tollackson’s shot to end the first half.
Amaker, especially, showed the intensity that Michigan missed.
After Minnesota’s Dan Coleman backed down senior Chris Hunter and drained a hook shot over him, Amaker immediately called a timeout. He proceeded to point adamantly and yell at the Wolverines huddled around him. The scene could have fit in any of the last three games, but unlike those situations, Amaker’s team was ahead 41-17.
Last week, the Michigan players repeatedly said that they had to return to the aggressive defense they played at the start of the Big Ten season.
But each game yielded the same results. The Wolverines fell to an opponent that shot the lights out. It’s not like the other team ran out five J.J. Reddicks (Purdue is second-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring offense). Michigan simply failed to muster the effort to defend the perimeter or dribble drive.
Still, give Amaker and the Wolverines some credit. Their backs were up against the wall. If they lost last night, the only postseason tournament calling after the Big Ten tournament would have been the NIT.
It would be too easy to point to such a definitive victory and proclaim the Wolverines’ return to glory. In reality, yesterday’s win didn’t prove that much.
They beat a team that started the Big Ten season 0-6 and currently sits in third-to-last place in the conference standings. And Michigan did what every contender has to do: defend home court.
Now, the Wolverines have to travel to East Lansing this Saturday to face Michigan State, and Michigan’s play on the road in the Big Ten has been less than desirable – at least in the past two weeks.
This Saturday, they’re going to have to prove that they have the mental toughness to carry the suffocating defense they displayed last night with them on the road.
Otherwise, they’ll be watching March Madness from the cozy confines of Crisler Arena
Kevin Wright can be reached at email@example.com.