Heading into the season, everybody knew it would take a while for an inexperienced team to grasp John Beilein’s complicated offense.

Kelly Fraser
Michigan coach John Beilein has implemented a 1-3-1-zone defense this season. (CLIF REEDER/Daily)

Overlooked, though, was how tough it would be for the Michigan men’s basketball team to perfect his defense.

In their 79-65 loss to Butler last Wednesday, the Wolverines gave up a Great Alaska Shootout record 17 3-pointers. And while some credit should go to the Bulldogs’ hot shooting, they also had too many easy looks from long range.

Butler hit several momentum-swinging 3-pointers right as Michigan fought its way back into the contest early in the second half.

“They make threes, they make threes, they make threes and all of a sudden it’s a double-digit lead again and we could never recover from that,” Beilein said in his postgame radio interview on WTKA.

It was supposed to be Beilein’s team that drained all the trifectas this season. But on a team without a proven offense, the Wolverines can’t afford to look past the defensive side of the floor any longer.

Along with his backdoor-laden, 3-point-heavy offensive attack, Beilein is also one of the few coaches in America to employ an unorthodox 1-3-1-zone defense on a regular basis.

You would think the one player in the back of the scheme would be someone with shot-blocking capabilities, like sophomore Ekpe Udoh. But Beilein has his point guard patrol around the rim and has him more focused on cutting off passing lanes than swatting shots.

Beilein’s objective is to pressure the ball out of the hands of a team’s normal playmakers and instead force players unaccustomed to making decisions into uncomfortable situations.

At its best, the 1-3-1 causes havoc and turnovers for the opposing team’s offense, resulting in easy fastbreak opportunities going the other way. Run it incorrectly, and the opponent is left with wide-open looks because of the aggressive nature of the scheme.

For just that reason, Eastern Washington came out firing from long distance, trying to emulate the success Butler had two nights earlier, but the Wolverines adjusted.

The Eagles shot 6-for-17 from 3-point range, including a woeful 2-for-11 in the first half. Michigan held Eastern Washington to under 32 percent shooting overall and won the game, 61-53.

“I thought we played terrific defense down the stretch,” Beilein said through the athletic department. “That allowed us to get the scores that we did get.”

Beilein is not averse to playing classic man-to-man defense, but so far he has used it for just a few possessions at a time to throw off opponents.

But as evidenced by the Wolverines’ regression in Saturday’s 73-69 loss to Western Kentucky, in which the Hilltoppers shot more than 57 percent from the field, learning the 1-3-1 is still very much a work in progress.

Similar to his penchant for details on the offensive end, Beilein demands mastery of the little nuances on the defensive side. Earlier this season, he noted how freshman Manny Harris needed to rotate his body position so he covered more area on the top of the key while on defense, which maximizes his ability to create steals.

With a tough schedule the rest of the way, the Wolverines won’t have many games in which they can rely on their talent to win. And with such a young squad, Michigan can’t count on its experience.

Early on, it’s clear that defense will decide how many wins this team can pull off.

“We just need to hang in there and battle,” Beilein said following Saturday’s defeat. “We will need to now go back and find all the little things that we need to change.”

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