Uncasville, Conn. — Defense has been the story of Michigan’s season.
On Sunday, the No. 18-ranked Wolverines added another chapter.
Providence became the latest foe to find out how difficult it is to penetrate Michigan’s stout defense, falling 66-47 in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off championship game at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Ignas Brazdeikis had 20 points and seven rebounds and Jon Teske scored a career-high 17 points for Michigan (5-0), which has held four opponents this season under 50 points.
David Duke scored 12 and Alpha Diallo and Nate Watson each added 10 for Providence (3-2), which shot 28.1 percent (16-for-57) from the field, 11.1 percent from 3-point range (2-for-18) and had twice as many turnovers (12) as assists (six).
"I think anytime — I've been coaching a long time — when you got seven guys that could go in and stay in front of people and also understand concepts that are happening outside of it, they're growing every day and just understanding," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Between Villanova, these guys and (George Washington), there's some downhill guys on those teams and we're really doing a good job.
"(Strength and conditioning coach) Jon Sanderson should get a lot of credit with that because in our strength training we've emphasized lateral movement a great deal and he's really done a great job. We're really going east and west pretty well."
Following a physical first half that featured its fair share of stare-downs and chirping, Michigan had to wade through a rocky start where it was whistled for four fouls and gave up four offensive rebounds in the first three minutes of the second half. Providence cashed in on the extra possessions and turned Michigan’s 13-point halftime lead into a 38-29 deficit with 17:11 to play.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers helped steady matters with back-to-back 3-pointers within a 30-second span to push the lead to 44-29 at the 16:24 mark, giving Michigan a double-digit advantage it wouldn't relinquish the rest of the way.
Providence switched to a zone defense and threw a full-court press at times to try to slow down Michigan, but the Wolverines weren’t fazed. Rather, Michigan pulled away during a stretch where it held the Friars roughly six minutes between made field goals and used an 8-0 run to make it 56-36 with 6:57 to play.
By the time Providence snapped its field-goal drought with 6:40 to go, it was too little too late as the Wolverines coasted to their fifth consecutive win of at least 19 points.
"I don't know if it was ball pressure so much as the back side of their defense," Providence coach Ed Cooley said. "We were able to run offense, I just think we couldn't make a shot. The game was really choppy. It wasn't so much we couldn't run our offense, it's just that we couldn't score. We got some of the looks we wanted. We got the ball into the post basically whenever we wanted.
"We just weren't able to capitalize on shooting the ball and that's going to happen some nights. If you would've told me before the beginning of this game that they would score 66 points and we would get beat by 20 — I mean, defensively we did some decent things. I still think the immaturity of our group and the maturity of their group showed for about 37 of the 40 minutes of the game."
Michigan made it known early that Providence was going to have to fight for every basket. The Friars had more turnovers (five) than made field goals (three) over the first 10 minutes of the game. And even when it looked like Providence had an easy bucket, Michigan proved otherwise.
After Watson grabbed an offensive board right under the basket, Brazdeikis came up from behind to swat the shot out of bounds.
When Diallo thought he could get by redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews out on the perimeter, Matthews locked him down, forced a bad shot and brought the Michigan bench to its feet in approval.
And when Diallo appeared to have the rim to protect him on a reverse layup attempt, Livers flew up from behind and pinned his shot on the glass.
By the time Providence managed to crack 10 points with 8:54 left in the first half, Michigan built an 18-12 lead behind the strength of Brazdeikis, who bullied his way to the rim on numerous occasions.
But the toughness and physicality of the game led to foul trouble for Matthews and sophomore guard Jordan Poole, who picked up two fouls in the final six minutes and could only watch as Providence used a 6-0 run to pull within 21-20 with 4:24 left in the half.
Yet, Michigan didn’t bend and stiffened up defensively to close the half with a momentous swing. The Wolverines ripped off a 14-2 run over the final 3:49, with Teske starting the spurt with his first career 3-pointer and ending it with a putback dunk, to put them well on their way to claiming the early season tournament title with a 35-22 halftime lead.
"I feel like we're building a lot of confidence right now, but this is only the beginning for us," Brazdeikis said. "We're going to work, continue to play better and be the best team we can be."