Blocks adding new dimension to Michigan defense

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Michigan coach John Beilein rarely makes his team break down film from the previous season’s final game.

But with an emphasis on ratcheting up the defense, Beilein had his players watch the second half of the NCAA Tournament loss to Notre Dame, when Michigan blew a 12-point halftime lead.

The message seems to have been well-received.

Through four games, Michigan is holding opponents to 59.5 points on 41.2 percent shooting, highlighted by back-to-back stout performances against Marquette and SMU to win the 2K Classic in New York.

The improved defense has helped Michigan start 4-0 and climb into the rankings — tied at No. 25 with Florida State — for the first time since last November.

“The way we played last year, they realized the results were not very good, so that smacked them right in the face,” Beilein said Tuesday on WTKA. “The desire, the personnel, the whole thing has just made us a better team for right now.

“Now if you watched us in practice, we weren’t very good defensively. There’s a constant work in progress.”

But with plenty of depth and size with big men Moritz Wagner, D.J. Wilson and Mark Donnal, the Wolverines have an added dimension to block and alter shots that was lacking a year ago. The three have combined for 16 of the team’s 20 blocks, led by Wilson’s 10.

“We have not been able to block shots in a little bit, so it’s really important to have that type of length,” Beilein said. “I’ve noticed it in several of our drills and we do a lot of them ... but D.J. has changed some games.

“He blocked the first shot of the (SMU) game. (Forward Semi Ojeleye) was so highly sought after and such a star for SMU, all of a sudden gets his first one put back and D.J. scored a layup at the other end. It set a great tone.”

Michigan will look to string together another impressive defensive effort as it faces a stiff test against South Carolina guards PJ Dozier, Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell in its first true road game today.

“We’ve seen we can win some at home ... now how are you going to do when you go into some of these other arenas?” Beilein said. “It’s going to be great for us.”

Irvin asked to attack

When senior forward Zak Irvin’s shots weren’t falling against SMU, he decided to attack the rim.

That’s something Beilein said he hopes to see more of out of Irvin, especially with the shot clock winding down.

“With today’s defenses and the way fouls are called, it’s a must that you attack the rim,” Beilein said. “Because he’s a very good passer as well, the more he penetrates, the more they have to give help.

“The thing I like least late in the shot clock is a step-back (3-pointer). This is a time to drive the ball, get to the foul line. You got shooters all over the place, find people.”

Physical without fouling

Wagner has seen his playing time decrease the past three games, and one reason is foul trouble.

After playing a clean game in the opener against Howard, Wagner was whistled for three fouls against Indianapolis and SMU, and two against Marquette. He also was quickly pulled in favor of Donnal after picking up a foul 17 seconds into the SMU game.

“He gets his body into weird angles that encourage the call and a foul every time. He just has to reshape his body at times,” Beilein said. “It’s no different than a guy contesting a shot and his fingers drop toward the ground at the end. When he contests, it looks like a foul.

“We’re trying to teach him that you can be physical without fouling. He’s sort of learning what he can do and what he can’t do because we certainly need him in there.”

Michigan at South Carolina

Tip-off: 5 p.m. Wednesday, Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, S.C.


Records: 25 Michigan 4-0, South Carolina 4-0

Outlook: The Wolverines have won their first four games for the second time in three seasons. ... South Carolina, averaging 82 points during its five-game home stand, is led by Sindarius Thornwell (20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds) and PJ Dozier (11.5 points, 3.8 assists).