Ann Arbor — On the surface, the defensive numbers are surprisingly impressive.
Michigan ranks eighth in the nation in scoring defense (60.7 points), is tied for 52nd in total steals (110) and is 97th in defensive field-goal percentage (41.5 percent) entering play Sunday.
The Wolverines also rank 23rd nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, surrendering 94.2 points per 100 offensive possessions, which is the fifth-best mark in the Big Ten behind Michigan State (86.5 points; No. 2), Purdue (92.2; No. 10), Penn State (92.7; No. 15) and Maryland (93.4; No. 18).
But even through 15 games, Michigan coach John Beilein isn’t ready to buy into those numbers yet.
“I see a lot of people that are missing (shots) that the Big Ten will make. That’s my assessment,” Beilein said after Saturday’s 76-51 victory over Jacksonville. “I think my assistant coaches are saying, ‘No, (Jon) Teske is making a difference in there and Charles (Matthews) and some of our additions this year are making a difference in our defense.’
“I’ll believe it more when we’re doing it every night. But we’re going to keep working at it, that’s for sure.”
The defense has been the one constant for Michigan in recent weeks, particularly in the nonconference finale against Jacksonville when the offense seemed to suffer from a holiday hangover for most of the game.
In the last four wins over Texas, Detroit Mercy, Alabama A&M and Jacksonville, the Wolverines held all four foes under 37 percent shooting from the field, 38 percent from 3-point range and forced 65 total turnovers over the span.
Granted, Detroit Mercy, Alabama A&M and Jacksonville are underwhelming foes and missed a fair share of open shots, but Michigan has held most of its opponents to some of their lowest scoring totals of the season.
UC-Riverside (42 points), Alabama A&M (47), Indiana (55), Detroit Mercy (58) and VCU (60) all scored their fewest points in a game against Michigan, while Southern Miss (47), Jacksonville (51), Texas (52) and Central Michigan (65) all posted their second-worst offensive outings.
On top of that, LSU (77) scored its third-fewest in a two-point win as well as UCLA (69) in a game that went to overtime.
According to fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson, the defensive effort feels much different at this point of the year compared to last season when teams were shooting close to a 50 percent clip.
“I think we’re just more connected and have a better understanding of what we’re trying to achieve,” Robinson said. “Really on both ends, I think it’s all about keeping it simple. Defensively I think we’re not overthinking things and just trying to be really solid, make people score over a strong chest, score tough twos, keep people off the 3-point line and, obviously, no layups.
“I think Coach (Luke) Yaklich has done a really good job of setting the standard of what’s expected and recently we’ve had some success.”
Matthews said that success is a result of each and every player buying in on the defensive end and has been the team’s biggest area of growth over the first half of the season.
“It can be better, but it’s not bad,” Matthews said. “We still got a long way to go, but we’re right there and we’re getting it.”
Earlier this season, Beilein said he wanted to get his rotation settled by the beginning of the December.
While it may have taken longer than he would’ve liked, Beilein said each player has a better sense of his role as the team heads back into Big Ten play.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Matthews and Robinson have started all 15 games, while Eli Brooks has settled into the starting point guard spot the last 11 games and Wagner has been the mainstay at center barring injury.
Sophomore center Jon Teske and sophomore guard Zavier Simpson have usually been the first ones off the bench, with freshmen Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole also averaging over 10 minutes per game.
“Right now, as long as Moe is healthy, we’ll rotate the two centers and we’ll probably play nine guys,” Beilein said. “Jaaron (Simmons), Austin (Davis) and Ibi (Watson) right now are the ones who have been the last ones off the bench and are just waiting.”