West Lafayette, Ind. — Five straight wins. Seven victories in the last eight games.
The Wolverines are, once again, playing as well as any team in the country and are looking like the same squad that stormed through the Bahamas three months ago.
But the way associate head coach Phil Martelli sees it, there’s a difference between Michigan then and now.
“I thought in the Bahamas we looked like an offensive team,” Martelli said after Saturday’s win over Purdue at Mackey Arena. “Now I think we look like a winning team.
“There's a synergy here about being a winning team and expecting to win. In the Bahamas, we were literally just better offensively than the other teams we played against.”
While some Wolverines may feel they’re playing as well as they did in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, Martelli said he doesn’t think they’re “all the way there” just yet. The reason? Much more thorough scouting.
In the November tournament, there wasn’t much film on first-year coach Juwan Howard’s system and there wasn’t much time for opponents to prep due to quick turnarounds with three games in three days. Michigan averaged 79.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting and made at least 10 3-pointers each contest as it shot its way past Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
The advantage of unfamiliarity has worn off. The Wolverines (18-9, 9-7 Big Ten) have since had to find ways to win by whatever means necessary. Over the last few weeks, those means have come on the defensive side of the ball.
“Obviously when you get in conference play there's a lot more scouting,” junior forward Isaiah Livers said. “In the Bahamas we were an offensive force. Our defense was overlooked because our offense was so efficient. Our defensive principles were still there. It's just they are more implemented now that we're going to be scouted. A lot of offense isn't going to work, so we've got to rely on the defensive end.”
Take Saturday’s 71-63 triumph at Purdue, for example. The Wolverines defended at a high level, held the Boilermakers to 21 first-half points and never let them establish any sort of offensive rhythm.
Despite making just three field goals over the first 10 minutes of the second half and missing all eight of their 3-point attempts after the break, Michigan’s 15-point halftime lead never dropped below eight and didn’t dip to single digits until the final 90 seconds.
That all happened with Michigan not playing “that good” in the second half — as Purdue coach Matt Painter pointed out — junior guard Eli Brooks missing the final 17 minutes after being injured in a collision, and senior guard Zavier Simpson not making a single shot in the game.
“That wasn't a thing of beauty offensively in the second half, but we're maybe not built that way,” Martelli said. “The defensive side of the ball, we could've stayed out there another 20 minutes. They just were not going to score enough and that's what is happening to these teams. They're just not scoring enough.”
It's been a common theme throughout this month. Since Feb. 1, Michigan ranks No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency (0.856 points per possession) and is holding foes to 41.6 percent on 2-point shots and 25.8 percent on 3-point shots, per BartTorvik.com.
Martelli credited the defensive resurgence to assistant coach Saddi Washington's and Howard's insistence on shrinking the floor and being sharper in scouting reports. There’s also the better job the team has done “tracing the ball” and not leaving big men in one-on-one situations in the post.
During Michigan’s current five-game win streak, the Wolverines have held every opponent under 70 points and four of them under 40 percent shooting. In the one game that didn’t happen — against Indiana (45.9 percent) — Michigan shot a blistering 57.4 percent from the field and had five players score in double figures.
“Whether we score in the 70s, 80s or if we score in the 40s or 50s, no matter what type of game we're playing in, we can get stops in either and we can score when needed,” senior center Jon Teske said. “That starts with (Simpson) and the leaders on this team and just seeing how the game is played.
“We're very good defensively when we're getting stops, getting out in transition, knocking down 3s. A lot of guys can switch one through four (on defense). We're tough to beat when we're playing well defensively and we're knocking down shots.”
Martelli added the team is doing a better job sharing the game and believing in one another. He noted during Michigan’s four-game losing skid in January, there were times when the ball was being dribbled too much and there wasn’t enough trust.
“This team now has complete trust in the way that they're being taught, the way that they're being asked to play, and they trust each other,” Martelli said.
That growing belief has led a familiar feeling for Livers. And not just one going back to the Bahamas.
“The past teams I've been on, it's around this time we were starting to get on our winning streak and it's the perfect time, honestly,” Livers said. “You would rather start now than start early and then get a flat tire and not do well (later) in the season.
“I like the locker room vibes right now. Everybody is clicking. Everybody is connected.”