Michigan, Florida ride seal-tight defenses to superior heights

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan ranks No. 2 in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency metric, surrendering 0.860 points per possession.

Des Moines, Iowa — It’s no secret what has helped Michigan and Florida get this far.

Defense, defense and some more defense.

The two teams are among the stingiest in the nation and rank in the top 25 in scoring defense, with the Wolverines checking in at No. 2 at 58.6 points and the Gators not far behind at No. 21 at 63.6 points.

They rank in the top 15 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, with Michigan surrendering 0.860 points per possession (No. 2) and Florida allowing 0.920 points per possession (No. 14).

And both squads are also riding stellar defensive efforts into Saturday’s NCAA Tournament second-round matchup at Wells Fargo Arena, where a spot in the Sweet 16 will be on the line.

Florida chomped down and held a Nevada team that was averaging 80.1 points to 61 points on 34.5 percent shooting on Thursday, while Michigan shut down Montana to the tune of 55 points on 33.3 percent shooting and finished with a 90-percent contest rate.

"I'm excited. It's a big game and it doesn't get bigger than this,” freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis said on Friday. "They switch it up all the time, so we’ve just got to be ready for all that insanity. Iowa did it similar where they just played man-to-man one possession and 1-2-2 and all this other stuff. We'll be ready.”

Florida’s ability to throw different defensive looks and actions at any time — like it did down the stretch against Nevada — has been the key to its success.

Michigan coach John Beilein is well aware of the problem that presents. During the regular season, the Wolverines struggled to adjust offensively to teams like Iowa and Penn State who mixed up their defensive coverages throughout the game.

“That is the challenge,” Beilein said. “Sometimes they change defenses in the middle of a defense. They throw the ball in and they are in zone and they may change it in the middle of it. You have to play with heads up. The shot clock is ticking and last night we couldn't run a lot of stuff because they (Montana) were pushing us down and icing us the whole game.

“We have to adjust, but they're going to try to keep up off-balance. If they saw the way we attacked the press, they'll probably press the heck out of us and we've got to be ready for a whole lot of things in that we do see that occasionally in our league.”

Junior guard Zavier Simpson said with the way Florida plays physical, has players who can lock down their individual matchup and uses its defense to help dictate the pace, it looked a bit like he was watching his own team on film.

The feeling is mutual for the Gators, who saw the similarities of two defenses that capitalize on others’ mistakes and force teams to grind out possessions.

“Their defensive effort, their unselfishness on both ends of the floor and how much they help each other, they play really hard,” Florida guard Jalen Hudson said. “It's kind of impressive.

“They're very versatile, especially with the big guy (Jon Teske) in the middle. They have good guards that can play on you step for step and then they have the big guy in the middle that's going to clean up everything. I know defensively they're going to be really sharp.”

On top of that, both teams boast balanced scoring attacks, which makes it harder to key in on one guy and anticipate what play is going to come for what player at any given time.

“I feel like it won't be as easy to break them down,” Florida center Kevarrius Hayes said. “It'll be more like developing a play, seeing where it takes us and seeing what the defense gives us.

“The more disciplined will probably come up on top.”

And at this time of the year, with 32 teams left, nothing comes easy, especially when two of the nation's most efficient defenses cross paths.

“They're (No. 14) in the country for a reason,” assistant coach Luke Yaklich said. “They have length. They play really hard. They're well coached. They have a great scheme that complements all of their individual talents of their players.

“They're a really connected group right now on the floor in terms of their transition defense, their ball screen coverage, all of these things. I'm looking forward to it as I am any game, but I hope the better defensive team is wearing the maize and blue tomorrow."

West Region


Tip-off: 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa

TV/radio: CBS/950

Records: Michigan 29-6; Florida 20-15

Next up: Winner faces No. 6 Buffalo or No. 3 Texas Tech in the Sweet 16


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins