Michigan aims for the moon with out-of-this-world defense
Ann Arbor — Most teams would’ve been pleased to hold an explosive and talented North Carolina team to nearly 30 points under its scoring average.
But if Michigan has proven one thing this season, it’s not like most teams when it comes to defense.
That’s why shortly after the No. 7 Wolverines pounded the No. 11 Tar Heels, 84-67, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday night, redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews expressed his dissatisfaction with what turned out to statistically be the team’s worst defensive performance of the season.
“Nothing really,” Matthews shrugged when asked what can be said of the defense after another stifling outing. “I think people are getting it confused because it's North Carolina.”
Matthews then broke off his answer to ask how many points Michigan’s defense was allowing on average entering the matchup, which was 48.3 per game — the fewest in the nation.
“Yeah, so we didn't do that well defensively. We could've done better honestly,” Matthews said. “They're a great team, and we just have to continue to get better.”
When it was pointed out that North Carolina, which traditionally has one of the best offenses year in and year out, was averaging 96.6 points prior to Wednesday’s clash, Matthews still wasn’t content.
“It was 20 points above our average,” he said. “This wasn't a championship for us. Happy to win, happy it's over with.
“On to the next one.”
That says something about the expectation the Wolverines have set for themselves, even after holding the Tar Heels to a season-low 39.4 field-goal percentage (26-for-66).
Granted, North Carolina’s fast-paced offense got to the defense early and opened the game 9-for-13 from the field. But after Michigan adjusted to its speed, it held the Tar Heels to 17-for-53 shooting over the final 27:23 and suffocated their half-court sets and top scorers.
After torching Michigan for 27 points in last season’s meeting, preseason All-American and senior forward Luke Maye could only muster 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting primarily against freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis.
Heralded freshman Coby White was able to get downhill and was the igniter for anything positive for the Tar Heels in the first half until junior guard Zavier Simpson threw a tarp on him the entire second half.
Matthews silenced North Carolina’s leading scorer Cameron Johnson, who was held scoreless until there was 7:05 left and Michigan was up by 20, and junior center Jon Teske tied a season-high with five crowd-pleasing blocks.
“(Assistant coach) Luke Yaklich says we're going to contest shots with every fiber of our being,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He actually says that, and we do.
“Charles is possessed at defense. He and Zavier are the most driven defensive players I've ever coached. This is what they want to do, and offense is sort of residual out of it.”
Michigan’s defense left North Carolina coach Roy Williams irritated, frustrated and with nothing positive to glean from his team’s first trip to Ann Arbor.
“They have a sense of urgency on the defensive end,” Williams said. “They're hard to screen because they fight through the screens, and if they switch, they communicate.
“Their defense has been really good. I don't think that John would think they probably played as well defensively against us.”
Beilein didn’t. He lamented the late 3-pointers and offensive rebounds the Tar Heels were able to get off scrambles and not off their sets. And even with how well the defense has been playing, Beilein emphasized it’s still November and added “who knows what can happen with this team.”
But if this first month has been any indication — pummeling opponents by an average of 21.7 points while holding each foe under 70 points and under 40-percent shooting — it could be a long season for the opposition.
"We're always hungry out there. We want to block shots, we want to defend, we want to steal," Brazdeikis said. "This was a good start for our defense, these seven games, but it's nowhere near where it could be. We have so much potential on the defensive end.
“We’re capable of shutting every single team down.”