Ann Arbor — Back in mid-January, when Michigan was in the midst of opening Big Ten play with a 4-6 mark and unable to defend anyone, coach John Beilein described some of his players as lost in the forest.
In the middle of a game, as he described it, several of his players would lose their way on the defensive end, lose sight of their man and starting guarding at odd angles.
“I call it GPS, some players have bad GPS of where the basket is, where their man is, how far out is he on the court,” Beilein said back then.
Well, two months later in what seems like a completely different season from the one that was being played then, the Wolverines have found their way out of the forest and are getting ready to play No. 3 Oregon on the Midwest Region semifinals on Thursday in Kansas City.
And while much of the focus will be on the high-scoring nature of both teams, it’s been the focus on defense that has helped turn Michigan’s season around.
“It’s not just effort, I think just think the focus is lot different,” senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “It’s realizing that it’s not that it makes or breaks this team but it makes a huge difference. It’s just five guys that really want to win, and that is what it really boils down to. You figure out what you need to do to win, and pretty much do it.
“You realize you can score points all day, but if you allow the other team to score then really that’s a big difference. The stakes are higher now and I think that it raises the level of each guy so I think that is a big part of it, too.”
It hasn’t just happened, however. As bad as Michigan was on defensive end through the first part of Big Ten play, it has been that much better since.
Through the first 10 games of conference play, which was capped by an ugly loss at home to Ohio State, the Wolverines were giving up an average of 72.4 points a game, including back-to-back efforts where they allowed 85. It was right around that time Beilein wondered about his players getting lost.
But after that loss to Ohio State, everything changed. Michigan blew out Michigan State at home, giving up just 57 points, and allowed 70 or more just twice over the course of the final eight games of the regular season for an average 64.8 points allowed.
Beilein gives much of the credit for the defensive turnaround to assistant coach Billy Donlon, who was brought on staff after being fired as Wright State's head coach after six seasons.
In the NCAA Tournament, while Oklahoma State went off for 91 points in the first round, Michigan bounced back to hold Louisville to 69.
Continuing that trend this week against Oregon will be critical.
“It’s definitely gonna be huge, especially now,” senior Zak Irvin said. “The teams left are really good and defense will be the difference maker, especially with how well they shoot the three. I think they are making like 10 3s a game which is a high number. So we’ve got to be able to run them off the line and that is what changed our season. We started running teams off the line and forced them to make tough 2s.”
It will be no small task against an Oregon team that is averaging 79.4 points a game and has four players averaging double digits. Junior forward Dillon Brooks is the biggest weapon, scoring 16.4 points a game, but the Ducks have plenty of options.
Even with the loss of forward Chris Boucher to injury, they’ll present plenty of problems for the Wolverines. Jordan Bell has filled in well for Boucher and scores 10.8 a game while grabbing better than eight rebounds while guards Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis combine to score more than 24 a game.
“Joran Bell is a center with 60-some assists,” Beilein said. “He’s a problem. He’s a real problem for us. He’s a really good offensive rebounder and they can play through him so much.
“They really have enough ammo in that gun that I don’t think they drop off too much.”