Ann Arbor — Over the early portion of Big Ten play, struggling and scuffling could’ve been used to describe Michigan’s defense.
But those words have been replaced by new ones as of late: solid and stout.
That’s because over the past five games, the Wolverines’ defense has turned things around and has held opponents to 0.849 points per possession — a mark that ranks No. 2 in the nation during that span.
"Practice has been a big key to how our defense has improved,” coach Juwan Howard said Friday. “There have been other ways how we can add to how we can become a better defensive team by some of the adjustments that we've made.
“But it has always started in practice and building those habits and guys being locked in, buying in to what we're teaching and bringing the energy and effort and mindset of trying to figure out ways to disrupt and get better as a defensive group."
According to junior guard Eli Brooks, one of those adjustments has been putting an emphasis on “shrinking the gaps,” limiting one-on-one situations, and making opposing players “play in a crowded space.”
“That took a big leap,” Brooks said, “and you can see it in the defense.”
More importantly, one can see it in the numbers and in the record.
Once Big Ten play resumed after the new year, Michigan ranked No. 112 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (0.975 points per possession) over its six games against Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State and Illinois, according to BartTorvik.com.
Worse than that were Michigan’s defensive shooting numbers. Over the six-game span, opponents posted an effective field-goal percentage — a measurement that accounts for 3-pointers counting for more than a 2-point field goal — of 53.8 percent. That mark ranked No. 305 out of 353 Division I basketball teams.
During that same stretch, foes shot 51.7 percent from inside the arc and 39.6 percent from beyond the arc, which ranked No. 262 and No. 331, respectively, in the nation. Several big men, including Purdue’s Trevion Williams, Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu and Iowa’s Luka Garza, contributed to the woes with big numbers against the Wolverines.
As a result, Michigan lost five of those six games and four straight at one point. But during that January lull, Brooks said the players and coaches knew they had to make changes to get better defensively.
“After one of the games we had one of those practices where (we had) every single defensive drill you could imagine,” Brooks said. “I'm not sure how much time we spent on offense, but it was a lot of defense. We needed that. There was a lot of competitiveness in that practice because we wanted to make sure we still had that edge.”
That has shown as Michigan’s defense has tightened up over the past few weeks against Nebraska, Rutgers, Ohio State, Michigan State and Northwestern.
Over the five-game span, the Wolverines have limited opponents to an effective field-goal percentage of 41.6 percent (No. 9 in the nation) and 30.8 percent shooting on 3-pointers (No. 106). They've also gone 4-1 as they've held the Scarlet Knights (32.5 percent), Spartans (33.3 percent) and Wildcats (32.2 percent) to season-low shooting numbers.
But the biggest difference has been inside the 3-point line and around the basket, where Michigan has cut down opponents’ 2-point field-goal percentage to 39.3 percent, a mark that ranks No. 3 nationally.
“Guys have been more locked in to not leaving a brother on an island by himself,” Howard said. “Very good help team defense, but also have done a really good job of guarding our man one-on-one.”
Of course, there are other factors that have played a part. For example, there was the effective change in scheme against Michigan State, where Howard put Brooks — not senior guard Zavier Simpson — on star Cassius Winston and had Michigan’s big men hard hedge every ball screen to make Winston uncomfortable.
There has been an improvement in players talking and communicating on defense, an area Howard lamented after the Penn State loss on Jan. 22.
There has been “more pride in getting stops,” according to senior center Jon Teske, whether it’s contesting shots or securing a rebound to prevent extra possessions.
There has been the return of junior forward Isaiah Livers, one of the team’s most versatile defenders who can guard every position and direct defensive traffic.
And there has been better energy, effort and activity across the board.
"Offense helps with defense so being able to have the energy, getting out and running and getting early buckets really helps with defense,” Brooks said. “You play with more confidence. People always talk about confidence on offense, but there's confidence on defense.”
A confidence that, for the Wolverines, has seemingly gone from shaken to sound as they've turned things around.
Indiana at Michigan
Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Indiana 16-8, 6-7 Big Ten; Michigan 15-9, 6-7
Outlook: With a victory, Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske will set a program record for most career wins (105)…Michigan has won six straight in the series and the last five meetings all by double digits…Indiana has lost four of five and is 1-5 on the road in Big Ten play. Freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis is averaging 14 points and eight rebounds per game to lead the Hoosiers.