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Defense has been dandy, but UM ‘not looking for respect’

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan's Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson converge on Wisconsin's Ethan Happ on Thursday night.

Minneapolis – Michigan’s defense was the equivalent of a punching bag at the beginning of Big Ten play.

Through the first five games, Iowa, Penn State, Maryland, Illinois and Nebraska seemingly scored at will and did whatever they wanted on the offensive end with little resistance. They averaged 80.4 points and shot 53.4 percent from the field, including 55.3 percent from 3-point range.

After making subtle strides, Michigan has picked it up in the interior and on the perimeter over its three-game win streak heading into Sunday night’s game at Minnesota. But you wouldn’t know it based on what opposing coaches have said.

* After Michigan generated 30 points off a season-high 21 turnovers in its rout over Michigan State on Feb. 7, Spartans coach Tom Izzo said: “The turnovers are ridiculous. … Twenty-one turnovers, most of them of the joke capacity. I can’t give credit for all of those to them. I give some of it on the shot clocks. But just throwing it away over the middle, throwing it away down the court, that’s got to change.”

* After Michigan held Indiana to 4-for-19 shooting on 3-pointers and limited leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. to six points in its win on Feb. 12, Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said: “Maybe my shooters are feeling too much pressure. I'm not sure it was the Michigan defense. Maybe it was. I'm sure they'll credit themselves for it. Maybe it is. I have to watch the film.”

* After Michigan made adjustments and clamped down on sophomore forward Ethan Happ and Wisconsin over the final 17 minutes (UM held Happ to four points and the team to 30 percent shooting in the second half) in last week’s victory, Badgers coach Greg Gard said: “It was a tale of two halves in terms of our inability to finish in the paint in the second half.”

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All told, Michigan has held its opponents to 59.3 points on 44.7 percent shooting (71-for-159) and averaged 15.7 forced turnovers over the last three games.

And for Michigan coach John Beilein, the numbers are all that really matter.

"All I care about is: Are we winning games?” Beilein said. “It's got to be through good defense, but good defense can be done a lot of different ways. It can be through good offense sometimes as far as that you don't turn the ball over and allow runouts.

“So there's a lot of different ways, but other coaches weighing in on how good our defense – it's not an issue to us at all. We're not looking for respect. We're just looking to be better defensively."

Michigan’s ability to take care of the ball – it leads the nation with the fewest turnovers per game (9.4) – has led to minimal fast-break opportunities for opponents.

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Yet the largest defensive improvement has been in its most glaring soft spot – 3-pointers. After allowing teams to shoot a gaudy 48.9 percent (67-for-137) from 3-point range through the first nine Big Ten games, that number has been cut in half to 23.5 percent (12-for-51) over the last three contests.

"It's back to a mean where guys were banking in shots, guys that never made 3s just happened to do it,” Beilein said. “It was almost like foul shooting defense for a team. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't. But I do think that our guys understand a lot more about when to give help and when not to give help because we grew somewhat in areas of our slides.

“We're eliminating some 3s … and I think we're trying to run people off the line more. It's come back to where it needs to be. We keep a five-game stat as well as our conference stats, and you can see it's going in the right direction.”

Michigan at Minnesota

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Sunday, Williams Arena, Minneapolis

TV/radio: BTN/950

Records: Michigan 17-9 (7-6 Big Ten); Minnesota 19-7 (7-6)

Outlook: Michigan has won nine straight in the series and 13 of the past 14 meetings. … Minnesota has won four in a row and leads the Big Ten in blocked shots at 7.3 per game. Junior G Nate Mason (15.1 points) and freshman G Amir Coffey (12.4 points) lead five Gophers averaging double digits in scoring.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter @jamesbhawkins