Could this be John Beilein's 'best defensive team ever'?

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan's Zavier Simpson goes for a steal against Villanova's Collin Gillespie.

Michigan coach John Beilein couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought.

If he was told 20 years ago one of his teams would be a defensive juggernaut, how would he have responded?

“I would've said you're probably crazy,” Beilein said this week.

How the times have changed.

Beilein, who is known for his offensive mind, had decent defensive teams during his stops at Richmond and West Virginia that relied on creating turnovers with a 1-3-1 zone. Yet, none come close to the suffocating man-to-man mayhem Michigan is causing.

It’s a shift that began two seasons ago under then-assistant Billy Donlon, was built upon by de facto defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich a year ago and has seemingly reached another level this season.

“You have to coach to what your team does well,” Beilein said. “While we try to develop the team — we’ve got a young team — we got to develop a lot of areas, including shooting, timing, passing. There's one thing that we know we do (defend), so we just work at it really hard.”

It has shown so far for Michigan. In a pair of guarantee games against Norfolk State and Holy Cross, the Wolverines held the Spartans and Crusaders to 44 and 37 points, respectively, and under 31 percent shooting from the field.

The 44 points were Norfolk State’s fewest since it scored 39 against Virginia on Nov. 16, 2014. The 37-point output marked just the third time this decade Holy Cross was held under 40 in game. Each shot less than 31 percent in a game just once last season.

If those defensive numbers weren’t impressive enough, Michigan provided more proof against tougher competition in Wednesday’s 73-46 road rout of No. 8 Villanova. The Wolverines held the Wildcats to 17 points in the first 20 minutes — Villanova’s lowest first-half point total in 18 seasons under coach Jay Wright — and under 50 points in a game for the first time in six seasons.

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The stifling effort led to effusive praise from Wright, who had his encounters with Beilein-coached teams in the Big East and spent a large chunk of his nearly 10-minute postgame press conference commending Michigan.

“They weren’t really complicated,” Wright said. “They executed extremely well. That’s the key. It doesn’t matter how much you have; it’s how well you execute what you have.

“(Zavier) Simpson is small but physical as hell, really good on the ball. We couldn't get by him. We couldn’t make shots. They contested shots, got a piece of a few of our 3s. We couldn't get by them. They just chested us and kept us in front of them. Just a really good defensive team.”

Michigan's Isaiah Livers (top), Charles Matthews (bottom) and Eli Brooks struggle for a loose ball against Villanova.

Team is the keyword. While Simpson is a ferocious force who excels at disrupting an offense’s flow at the point, wing Charles Matthews and forward Ignas Brazdeikis can aggressively guard multiple positions and get up into players on the perimeter. Then if someone drives into the paint, 7-foot-1 obstacle Jon Teske is usually waiting to make him think twice.

And there’s seemingly no drop-off when the Wolverines go the bench, with guard Eli Brooks and forward Isaiah Livers syncing in and maintaining the intensity. Michigan has even thrived in stretches when it has gone to a small-ball lineup with Livers at the five due to his ability to switch off screens in pick-and-pop situations.

But it all starts and stops with Simpson and Matthews, the two captains who are driven to shut down their individual matchups and give the defense its snarl, bark and bite.

“Since the summer, since our scrimmages, we're all dogs here, you know?” Brazdeikis said. “They (Matthews and Simpson) instill that into us, but I came in with that mentality. That's who I am. I feel like we're building that up and it's really working for us.”

The stats back that up. Through three games, Michigan has held Norfolk State, Holy Cross and Villanova to 17 points or less in one half, and the opponents have combined for more turnovers (50) than made field goals (48) or 3-point attempts (41).

Entering play Friday, the Wolverines also ranked No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense (42.3 points), tied for No. 5 in blocked shots (7.7 per game) and No. 7 in field-goal percentage defense (31 percent).

“I’m very impressed with Michigan’s team,” Wright said. “This could be John’s best defensive team ever.”

Michigan vs. George Washington

Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Conn.

TV/radio: ESPN3/950

Records: No. 18 Michigan 3-0; George Washington 0-3

Outlook: As part of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, the winner advances to face the winner of Providence-South Carolina in the championship game at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The losers will play in a consolation game at 4 p.m. Sunday. … George Washington is coming off a 76-57 loss at No. 5 Virginia and lost its opener in overtime to Stony Brook after jumping out to a 22-0 lead.

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins