Defensive tests are nothing new for Michigan.
While going through the Big Ten gauntlet, the Wolverines faced eight teams that ranked in the top 30 nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency.
They faced two more defensive-minded foes in Montana and Florida, the latter ranking No. 14 in defensive efficiency, in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
But the degree of difficultly will ratchet up in Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup against No. 3 seed Texas Tech, which leads the country in defensive efficiency (85.5 points per 100 possessions) and is surrendering the third-fewest points per game (59.2).
“This is a mixture of a very veteran team, probably one of the more veteran teams we're going to see all year long,” Beilein said Tuesday in an appearance on WTKA. “They've got that good mixture of guys that have been around, are hungry to win. Not coddled guys that are just trying out for the NBA. These guys are trying to win, and they've really had a successful year in a tough Big 12.
“It's going to interesting to see how we react. I would say their defense is really good. I mean, it's terrific. I will say in the Big Ten we see a lot of terrific defenses. So it won't be a shock to us, but it won't be easy either. We've been used to that.
"It doesn't mean we'll be successful, but hopefully we won't get turned around and can't make a pass or something. … We're going to have to be better than we were in those (Big Ten) games where we lost.”
Of Michigan’s six losses, four have come against Michigan State (three times) and Wisconsin, who each rank in the top eight in defensive efficiency and in the top 35 in scoring defense. The Wolverines were flummoxed by the Spartans’ ball-screen switches and were held to a season-low 54 points against the Badgers’ grind-it-out style of play.
Michigan’s other losses came at Iowa and Penn State, two teams that switched up their defenses — from man to zone to press — and threw different looks to keep the Wolverines off-balance throughout the game.
But no defense Michigan has seen is quite as aggressive and obsessed about keeping the ball out of the middle as Texas Tech is. The Red Raiders excel at taking charges, force 15.7 turnovers per game and rank No. 2 in field-goal percentage defense (36.8 percent). They also have one of the best rim protectors in the nation in Tariq Owens (83 blocked shots) and one of the top wing defenders in Jarrett Culver.
Add it up and Texas Tech is an absolute nightmare to score on, as Buffalo and Northern Kentucky found out the hard way by combining to shoot 36.9 percent in the first two rounds.
The Red Raiders (28-6) held the Bulls, one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses, to a season-low 58 points and forced them to miss 18 straight field goals in what coach Nate Oats called his team’s “worst offensive performance of the year.”
“Their defense is No. 1 in the country, so their athletes are very good,” Oats said. “We're one of the better offensive teams in the country. Our offense was not where it needed to be. We made some poor decisions. Our turnovers were a big issue, too.”
Northern Kentucky ran into a similar wall, going 5-for-22 from 3-point range and having two of its leading scorers, Drew McDonald and Jalen Tate, combine for 11 points on 4-for-25 shooting.
“They're everything they're cracked up to be in terms of defense,” Northern Kentucky coach John Brannen said. “I did have concerns on ability to score and that showed up. I was hoping we'd get to the foul line more in terms of driving the basketball. We weren't able to do that at all. Their physicality just kind of put us in situations that we weren't comfortable with, and then we just didn't shoot the ball well.”
It'll be Michigan’s turn to see how its offense reacts against a Texas Tech defense that gives little room to operate and excels at taking teams out of their rhythm.
When the Wolverines (30-6) headed to Des Moines, Iowa, last week, they were looking to cut down on the “my bad” moments on offense — limiting bad shots, valuing every possession, not falling into bad one-on-one habits. Beilein thought his team responded well in the wins over Montana and Florida and they will need it to carry over on the trip to Anaheim, Calif.
“We don't want to take people's swag away from them. We want them to have confidence,” Beilein said. “You can't coach every play and you can't draw up a play for every basket. There is a time you learn, 'OK, I've done this now 20 times and it's worked twice. The probabilities aren't in our favor.’
“That's what a couple of our guys are really learning right now or as a whole as a team. It’s, 'my bad I wasn't really sure of that play and I didn't ask any questions in the huddle.’ You're still not going to be perfect and it's not a game of perfection.”
But with each rung of the Tournament becoming tougher to climb, there seemingly won't be much room to slip up offensively against Texas Tech.
“We just want to continue to make those steps,” Beilein said. “With a few games left, every possession is important. It's not just about what happens in the last two minutes; it could be what happened in the first two minutes that might determine the game.
“Somehow we've got to have a couple of those almost perfect games going forward if we want to keep playing.”
NO. 2 MICHIGAN vs. NO. 3 TEXAS TECH
Tip-off: 9:39 p.m. Thursday, Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.
Records: Michigan 30-6; Texas Tech 28-6
Next up: Winner faces No. 1 Gonzaga or No. 4 Florida State in the Elite Eight.