Detroit News writers James Hawkins and John Niyo preview the Michigan-Montana game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Robin Buckson, Detroit News
Wichita, Kan. — Stifling. Stout. Spirited.
They are words one often wouldn’t associate with Michigan’s defense in past seasons — maybe only as an antonym.
That hasn’t been the case this season where third-seeded Michigan rolled into the NCAA Tournament and its first-round game against No. 14 seed Montana at Intrust Bank Arena as one of the hottest teams with one of the top defenses in the nation.
The Wolverines ranked No. 5 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 9 in scoring defense at 63.3 points per game entering play Thursday, impressive numbers that might have seemed unattainable just three seasons ago.
“We always joke about how it was always a race to 80 (points) when I first got here because our offense is so good and we didn’t really focus on defense that much,” senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said Wednesday.
“I think defense is more of an emphasis now. It’s more of the identity of this team. We have more personnel to play better defense. I think we just use that as our strength and don’t try to play anyway else.”
It has been an evolution years in the making that fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman have witnessed and experienced firsthand.
When Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman arrived in 2014, the Wolverines ranked 102nd in scoring defense (64 points) and 275th in defensive field-goal percentage (44.9 percent).
The following season wasn’t much different as Michigan continued to lean on its offense. It averaged 73.8 points per game, shot 46.2 percent from the field and scored at least 80 points nine times, but gave up 67.4 points per game, allowed opponents to shoot 44.8 percent and surrendered at least 80 points on seven occasions.
“I don’t want to say we didn’t take pride in it,” Robinson said of the defensive attitude in his first few seasons, “but there was a different mentality I would say. We were so gifted offensively that we knew we could outscore teams.”
Michigan's Duncan Robinson on defense Robin Buckson
Then last season, everything started to change. There was gradual shift as Michigan coach John Beilein relinquished the reins on defense and the Wolverines deployed an assistant coach who served as a de facto defensive coordinator and voice, beginning with Billy Donlon, who is at Northwestern, and now Luke Yaklich.
While it took roughly halfway through the Big Ten slate last season before it all started clicking for Michigan, the defense has been a constant this year under Yaklich thanks to an added focus that has injected more vigor into players to sit down and check people.
“The energy and excitement around getting stops — like we do little stuff and just start hollering or everyone is going crazy when we get a stop and celebrating stops where in years past we’ve always been celebrating a nice play on offense,” Robinson said. “The pride that goes into it I think has really changed.”
That sense of satisfaction hasn’t been lost on Montana. Grizzlies senior forward Fabijan Krslovic and junior guard Michael Oguine noted much of Michigan’s success stems from its defense and its ability to get opponents out of their rhythm using a similar scheme they’ve seen before.
“They play a pack line defense,” Montana redshirt junior guard Ahmaad Rorie said. “They try to pack it in, allow you to shoot 3s, contested 3s at that. That’s actually how we played defense last year … We’re going to try to get the ball in the spots we need to get it to.”
Montana coach Travis DeCuire said when he first started checking out tape on Michigan, the offense initially stood out due to the Wolverines’ ability to knock down deep 3-pointers.
But the more he watched, the more DeCuire’s eyes gravitated toward the other end of the floor and grew impressed.
“I think their defense frustrates you into bad shots and then your turnovers become extra possessions for them,” DeCuire said. “A team that’s as efficient as them offensively, you can’t afford to give them extra possessions or you’ll never get yourself out of a hole.
“I think the turnovers that they force, the bad shots that they force, a lot of things that they do don’t show up on the stat sheet. So, the games I’ve watched I’ve seen guys settle for just okay shots, not great shots, 30-percent shots. And if you have enough will inside of you to move the ball, make them work around, space them and get the best shot you can get every possession, then you’ll give yourself an opportunity to win. But not very many teams have done that.”
And not many people would’ve said that in recent years.