‘Exceptional’ UM defense picks up offense

James X Hawkins

Ann Arbor — Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman couldn’t imagine Michigan shooting the way it did Monday night and still being able to pull out the win earlier in his career.

The Wolverines shot 42 percent (21-for-50) from the field and 28 percent (7-for-25) on 3-pointers, which rank as their fifth- and fourth-worst shooting numbers in a game this season.

They scored 21 in the first half — tied for the third-fewest points in any half this season — and finished with 58 points, which only bested the team’s season-low 52-point outing at Nebraska.

The difference? Michigan was able to rely on its defense in a 58-47 win over Northwestern at Crisler Center, something the Wolverines couldn’t have said a few seasons ago.

More:Michigan grinds out win over Northwestern

“That was a big emphasis my first couple years here — shooting and scoring and just trying to score as much as the other team,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “I think coaching changed the mindset a little bit and it seems to be working.”

After a slow start where Michigan missed nine of its first 11 shots and seemingly couldn’t get anything to drop, it ratcheted up the defensive intensity and limited Northwestern's open looks to keep the deficit from getting out of hand.

The Wolverines forced the Wildcats to miss 14 of their final 16 shots in the first half, including the last nine during a seven-minute scoring drought, and finish with more turnovers (six) than points (five) over the final 13 minutes.

Michigan's defense eventually led to run-outs and keyed a 10-0 run that resulted in a two-point edge at the break, a lead the Wolverines wouldn’t relinquish.

“We didn’t let the score affect (our defense),” redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews said. “Early in the season we probably would've been missing shots and we don't have a lot of energy on the defensive end. I think we scored like five points in the first 10 minutes or something like that, so for us to do that and still stay locked in on the defensive end, that's huge.”

Freshman Jordan Poole and Matthews both said the team’s communication was pivotal in limiting the lapses and making the defensive schemes easier when the offense was lacking.

Abdur-Rahkman added when the shots aren't falling, the key to not letting their play slip at the other end and maintaining focus is leadership — starting all the way at the top with coach John Beilein.

When Beilein began his postgame news conference, he noted the only thing that should be talked about was his team’s defense. He credited sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, junior center Moritz Wagner, fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson and Matthews for the job they did hounding Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh, Dererk Pardon and Vic Law.

McIntosh, Pardon and Law were among the four Wildcats who entered the game averaging at least 11.5 points per game, along with Scottie Lindsey. By the end of the night, Lindsey was the only player to reach double digits with 15 points. 

McIntosh recorded six points on 3-for-10 shooting, five assists and three turnovers, Law had six points with 2-for-8 shooting and three turnovers, and Pardon had nine points with 4-for-7 shooting and four turnovers.

As a team, Northwestern finished with seven assists on 18 made baskets and 16 turnovers.

“It was exceptional,” Beilein said of his team’s defense. “I don't want to get into rating it against others, but it's as good as we've played right now and it had to be. In the first half, we were up two at half. Are you kidding me? We didn't make shots, we didn't make foul shots but we held them and that was the key to the win.

“I think there's certainly a shade more emphasis (on defense) in practice. I wanted advice and to really have somebody be the voice of it. It’s all (assistant coach) Luke (Yaklich) thinks about where I would be thinking 50-50. … But I also think this is very personnel driven and mindset driven. Charles likes to guard people, we know Zavier does and Muhammad has always been able to do it, so there's pride there."

That pride turned into praise from Northwestern coach Chris Collins, who left impressed by Michigan’s defensive effort that held the Wildcats to their second-lowest scoring total of the season and had a decisive 16-2 advantage in points off turnovers.

“You could tell they're locked in with their rotations. They're in good spots,” Collins said. “I think Moe is as much improved as a post defender. I thought his physicality down low against our guys made it tough on us to score in the paint. They have good length and athleticism. Zavier Simpson is outstanding, always has been. He's an outstanding on-ball defender and then you add two wings like Rahkman and Matthews — those are two long, rangy, quick wings that can wreak havoc out on the perimeter.

“I definitely think they've made a lot strides on that end and it's a reason why normally for them they don't win a game 58-47. So, it just shows that they've made a lot of strides on that end of the floor."