March 21, 2014 at 11:46 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan's 'D' takes charge in easy victory over Wofford

Michigan's Morgan and Stauskas on win over Wofford
Michigan's Morgan and Stauskas on win over Wofford: Players talk defense after first NCAA Tournament victory.

Milwaukee — For stretches, this was Michigan playing effective, feisty defense. For other stretches, it was simply Wofford being Wofford. If the Wolverines are deadly serious about launching another run, they need to understand there aren’t any more Woffords walking on that floor, and everything has to ratchet quickly now.

The quality of the opponent wasn’t the point here. The point is, the Wolverines entered this tournament sick of talking about their suspect defense and determined to do something about it. If they wondered how they’d win when their offense turned sloppy, this was a primer right here.

Michigan beat Wofford, 57-40, on Thursday night by approximately the margin expected. But it wasn’t the manner expected, with the Wolverines’ normally smooth offense bouncing the ball aimlessly, and their defense making the difference. That’s important, with Texas up next on Saturday.

We can’t discuss this, of course, without noting Wofford is a generally brutal offensive team, and Michigan didn’t exactly dominate on both ends. That didn’t matter to John Beilein and his players, who actually took modest joy in winning a grimy game.

“Everyone was anxious to play, and the shots will fall eventually,” Caris LeVert said. “The offense wasn’t clicking on all cylinders and that might have taken away from our energy, but our defense was great all game. We’re definitely encouraged by that.”

Beilein suggested it might have been the best defensive effort of the season, as Wofford shot 34 percent and hit precisely one of 19 three-point attempts. Yet the Terriers sliced an 18-point deficit to 40-33 on Karl Cochran’s lone three-pointer with 9:25 left, then barely scored the rest of the way.

Like father ...

It began as a Big Dog night, with Glenn Robinson back in the arena where he starred for the Milwaukee Bucks, and his son Glenn Robinson III was attacking from the start. This is what the Wolverines need, for Robinson to be a multiple-threat scorer, not just a patient shooter. Alas, the offenses went to the dogs and the Terriers turned it into a (Missed)-Three Dog night.

Robinson finished with 14 points and Nik Stauskas had 15, and the Wolverines actually didn’t shoot badly (48 percent). But when the shots started clanging and the Terriers started rallying, it could’ve gotten panicky for the second-seeded favorites, if they didn’t crank up the defense.

“This is a rare kind of defensive performance for us after the way we’ve been playing all season,” Stauskas said. “So hopefully we can ride this out for the rest of the Tournament.”

That’s always been the hope for these Wolverines, and in an otherwise thoroughly imperfect game, it was a decent tuneup. They came into the opener with two basic goals. One was to not suffer a stunning upset, the same goal as every high seed in the Tournament. The other was to show they brought a little defense with them, an element they’ll need for nights like this.

They were more sloppy than sluggish, bouncing around as if they had to win the game by halftime.

And they essentially did, building a 34-20 lead before the Terriers finally hit a few shots after missing their first 14 three-point attempts. The Wolverines had eight turnovers in the first half — they commit an average of nine per game — and finished with 11.

Commitment to 'D'

To be fair, Wofford plays its own feisty defense and plays it pretty well. But it came into the game ranked 256th in the nation in offensive efficiency by KenPom.com, and that number won’t be climbing anytime soon. Michigan is third in offensive efficiency and 93rd in defensive efficiency, and somewhere between those extremes lies the secret to a possible return to the Final Four.

“We emphasized this week, we can’t talk about defense after a loss anymore, or it’s going to be our last game,” Beilein said. “So we have to make another commitment to it, and that probably was our best defensive performance overall.”

As everyone knows, it will have to get consistently better. If this was another wakeup call for Michigan after the loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament, at least it was appreciated. In the Tournament these days, no victory should ever be sniffed at, although this one probably won’t be remembered either.

Listen to Wofford forward Lee Skinner: “We had as good of looks as we had all season. Inside, they were a bigger team, real physical, we just didn’t get a couple of those shots to go down.”

That wasn’t a knock on Michigan but it wasn’t an awe-inspired endorsement either. By the numbers and by the books, it was a smothering effort, even if it also was Wofford being Wofford.

The foes get better and the task gets tougher now, but at least the Wolverines have been reminded how much effort it’s going to take.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Michigan guard Nik Stauskas reacts to a 3-pointer in the second half Thursday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News