Ann Arbor — Sophomore forward Colin Castleton didn’t need many words to sum up what happened the last time Michigan and Purdue crossed paths.
"He went crazy,” Castleton said Friday.
Castleton, of course, was talking about Purdue sophomore forward Trevion Williams. The former Detroit Henry Ford Academy standout nearly willed the Boilermakers past the Wolverines on Jan. 9 in double overtime with 36 points and 20 rebounds but Michigan prevailed, 84-78.
Needless to say, not allowing Williams to repeat the feat is high on Michigan’s priority list heading into Saturday’s rematch at Mackey Arena.
“He got hot so quick,” Castleton recalled. “He made like his first three or four shots, and any basketball player when they make their first three or four shots, the basket just widens. I think shutting it off early, getting to him and playing aggressive (will be key).”
Williams’ career game came during a stretch where opposing Big Ten big men were taking advantage of Michigan’s defensive strategy — which focused on taking away 3-point shots and left one-on-one matchups in the post — and racking up eye-popping numbers.
However, that rough patch has come and gone for the Wolverines (17-9, 8-7 Big Ten) as their defense has made significant strides and changed things up over the last month, especially down low. Per BartTorvik.com, Michigan ranks No. 7 in the nation in 2-point field-goal percentage defense (41.6 percent) since Jan. 28.
“I do not want to jinx us because we have improved, but (Williams) is an exceptional player,” coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s very skilled on the low block for his size, how smart he is by reading angles and making difficult shots over taller bigs. Our big (Jon Teske) hasn't been the only one he's had big games against. He's one of the best players in the Big Ten.”
While Williams hasn’t come close to duplicating his monster performance, he’s still averaging 11.3 points and 7.2 rebounds over the last 11 games. He has also posted three more double-doubles over that span, including two in the past three contests.
But since that first meeting, Castleton said an increased focus on “certain little details” like staying connected and blocking out has helped spur the growth with the interior defense.
Another key area, Castleton said, has been an emphasis to play with more physicality in the post and take pride in individual matchups.
“I think that's a big thing he (Howard) has touched on this past little stretch that we've gone through where it's been going pretty well for us defensively,” Castleton said. “We showed it in the Rutgers game. I think the Michigan State was a big game that a lot of guys showed physicality, throwing that first punch and letting everybody know that we're setting the tone physicality wise. Letting (opponents) know they're not going to be able to just push us around goes a long way in a game.”
Castleton added doing “the dirty work” and “little things” is something that the team has spent more time practicing. And while some of it may go unnoticed, it has played a big part in Michigan’s recent surge.
“We work on rebounding, work on talking, effort, diving on the floor. That stuff doesn't just happen in the games,” Castleton said. “You've got to do it in practice, so we do the same thing when we go in live play and just play tough.”
Like Howard and Castleton, freshman wing Franz Wagner said limiting Williams as much as possible will be “a big part of the game.”
But this time around, Wagner pointed out the Wolverines have tweaked their defensive schemes, meaning senior center Jon Teske won’t likely be left on an island the entire time like he was in the first matchup.
“The Big Ten is a very good league and players are very good, so when you give people the chance to just go down low and dribble it eight, nine times, I think it's very hard for one player to stop the post,” Wagner said. “Helping off the perimeter — obviously you have to still be able to close out on the shooters — but I think we help a little bit more than we did at the start of the season.”
While it might have taken more time to find solutions than they would’ve liked, Wagner said the defensive turnaround is a result of everybody — the new coaching staff and players — working together and collectively figuring things out.
“I think we've did a good job of looking at what went wrong in some of our games and how we can improve,” Wagner said. “Especially on the defensive end, I think you can see how much of an improvement we've made. It's now our job to do that consistently and keep doing it.”
Michigan at Purdue
Tip-off: 2 p.m. Saturday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Indiana
Records: Michigan 17-9, 8-7 Big Ten; Purdue 14-13, 7-9
Outlook: Michigan has lost the last three meetings at Purdue and hasn’t won at Mackey Arena since 2014. Junior forward Isaiah Livers (ankle) is questionable to play…Purdue has lost three straight and dropped the first meeting between the teams, 84-78, in double overtime on Jan. 9 in Ann Arbor. The Boilermakers are 9-2 when scoring at least 70 points this season.