Wolverines look to rediscover 'edge,' focus on defense
Ann Arbor — Through the first month of the season, Michigan looked like one of the most dominant forces in the nation.
Over the last few weeks, though, the No. 4 Wolverines have looked rather, well, beatable.
The reason? The defense hasn’t played up to par during a string of its worst performances.
During its hot start where it dismantled its first eight foes by at least 17 points, Michigan held opponents to an average of 51.8 points on 34.2 percent shooting. No team scored more than 67 points or shot 40 percent from the floor — not even Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue, who all finished with season-low totals in points scored.
But over the last three games in wins that proved to be tougher than expected, opponents have averaged 66.7 points on 47.8 percent shooting. South Carolina became the first team to score more than 70 points and shoot better than 50 percent from the floor, while Western Michigan (45.7 percent) and Northwestern (45.1 percent) each shot well above Michigan’s field-goal percentage defense mark of 37.7 percent.
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Fortunately for the Wolverines, the lackluster outings didn’t prove costly and they’re in a stretch where they have plenty of time to dissect the film and correct their flaws.
"We tried to get back to some basics during this time,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Thursday. “We felt that Western Michigan deserved a lot of credit in the way they played us and how well they played. We had to get back to playing with the edge that we played with earlier in the year. I think we've done that the last couple days of practice.”
But edge wasn’t the only thing that has been missing as of late. According to Beilein, most of the foibles against Northwestern, South Carolina and Western Michigan resided in the details.
"You're not going to be at every game all year long the exact same intensity. But I think attention to detail probably was the biggest slippage that we had,” he said. “There's a lot going on and you have to have that. You got to understand that anybody can beat you. … I think our kids learned a lot, let's just say that."
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers said there were times the team was too lackadaisical and in “la-la land” against Western Michigan, like during defensive switches on cuts.
“I think we came out flat. We weren’t disciplined in any area at all,” Livers said. “In practice that’s been a major emphasis is just play Michigan basketball and basically stay disciplined like we were at the beginning of the season.”
The one area that stood out to Beilein was the lack of execution. Against South Carolina, the scouting report stressed that big man Chris Silva likes to go to his right, yet the Wolverines did little to force him to go to his left as he racked up a team-high 18 points.
Then against Western Michigan, guard Michael Flowers was given too much space and torched Michigan for a career-high 31 points, whereas Purdue’s Carsen Edwards (19 points on 21 shots) and North Carolina’s Coby White (12 points on 12 shots) weren’t given much room to breathe.
“We call a play with two plus or a three gap and we played (Flowers) in a two gap all day long,” Beilein said. “My analogy to the team is I didn't see Carsen Edwards get this open. Carsen Edwards never got open. He never had that whether we were switching or whatever. All of sudden Michael Flowers is better than Carsen Edwards? That sort of was the message. Coby White did not get this open. No matter who we're playing, we have to have that mentality.”
Michigan will have chances to get back on track defensively in its final two nonconference games, starting Saturday with Air Force. The Falcons run a Princeton offense just like Holy Cross and rank No. 269 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (98.4 points per 100 possessions).
“Air Force is a whole new challenge,” Beilein said. “We're going to learn a lot. I do know that it made us a better team playing Holy Cross and now playing Air Force is going to make us a better team.”
Iggy makes cut
Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis was one of 20 players named to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Oscar Robertson Trophy midseason watch list for national player of the year.
Brazdeikis, who leads Michigan in scoring at 15.8 points per game, is one of only four freshmen in the running, along with Oregon’s Bol Bol and Duke’s RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson.
The other Big Ten players to make the list were Purdue’s Edwards and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, who were both preseason All-American selections.
Finalists will be chosen in March and the award will be presented at the Final Four in Minneapolis in April.
Air Force at Michigan
Tip-off: 4 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 4 Michigan 11-0, 2-0 Big Ten; Air Force 4-6
Outlook: Air Force is coming off a lengthy layoff and is playing its first game since a 66-61 loss to Army on Dec. 8…This is the second of three games during a three-week stretch for the Wolverines…Michigan won the first and only meeting between the teams, 83-74, on Dec. 29, 1965.