'Can't win that way': Perimeter defense 'very disappointing' for reeling Wolverines
Columbus, Ohio — Coach Juwan Howard didn’t waste any time rattling off the numbers.
Michigan gave up 11 3-pointers to Ohio State. The Wolverines have surrendered 22 deep balls in the last two games. Back-to-back opponents have shot at least 47 percent from beyond the arc.
The same perimeter defense that had been a strength of Michigan’s throughout the season once again showed cracks in its foundation and drew Howard’s ire.
“It’s very disappointing,” Howard said shortly after Michigan dropped its second straight contest with Sunday’s 77-63 loss at Value City Arena.
Over the first 27 games of the season, Michigan (18-11, 9-9 Big Ten) didn’t allow a single team to make more than nine 3-pointers as opponents averaged 5.1 made 3s on 30.3 percent shooting.
During that same span, the Wolveri nes had allowed the fewest made deep balls during Big Ten play and ranked among the nation’s best in limiting 3-point attempts.
That changed against the conference’s top two 3-point shooting teams. The streak came to an end last Thursday when Wisconsin reached the double-digit mark with 11 3-pointers. The list doubled when Ohio State repeated the feat just three days later.
The Badgers and Buckeyes combined to make more 3s (22) than the Wolverines allowed during their recent five-game win streak (21).
“You can't win the game that way,” junior guard Eli Brooks said matter-of-factly.
After the Badgers shot 47.8 percent (11-for-23) from deep, Howard used words like poor, lazy and disappointing to describe his team’s defensive effort. And after the Buckeyes followed with a 52.4-percent clip (11-for-21), Howard was just as displeased.
Same words. Same topic. Same difference in the game.
“We have to do a better job of having a certain level of focus and making sure that we close all the way to those 3-point shooters,” Howard said. “I'd rather see a lot of these stickers (3-point shooters) be able to shoot the ball with no air space with a hand-ball contest. But we will improve in that area. I trust we will.”
For second straight contest, it was a trio of players who combined to deal the bulk of the long-range damage against Michigan. But it was a guard who got hot and couldn’t be cooled off from beyond the arc that ultimately tipped the scales.
Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice went 5-for-6 from 3-point range and seemingly answered every one of Michigan’s second-half runs with a momentum-stopping 3. Ohio State’s Duane Washington Jr. finished 5-for-7 from deep and made two second-half 3s when Michigan was making a push.
"He played well, shot the ball extremely well,” Howard said of Washington. “We just didn't give him enough resistance that he needed to make everything hard for him.”
Freshman wing Franz Wagner didn’t feel the quality of looks Ohio State got was much different than Wisconsin. Aside from “two bad shots that just went in,” Wagner said the Buckeyes, and Washington in particular, got too many open shots.
As frustrating as the past two games have been, Wagner couldn’t pinpoint just one thing the Wolverines need to do differently to fix the issue.
“Everything has got to be better,” Wagner said. “Everybody has to be closer to their man, more in his face and more ready to close out to the shooter.
"Last game they (Wisconsin) got a lot of open shots because we just didn't talk, and our minds weren't where they were supposed to be. Mostly Washington's shots I think is where we messed up defensively and him coming off screens and he's been making us pay for that. We weren't ready, we weren't communicating and not everybody was aware of that what was happening on the floor. If I had an explanation for this, I wouldn't let that happen. Nobody would on the team."
Brooks said the team didn’t do a good job taking away early looks and preventing Wisconsin and Ohio State from getting comfortable. While the Buckeyes made some tough shots, including a couple banked-in 3-pointers, Brooks added the Wolverines could’ve limited most of their long-range attempts.
"We've got to communicate better,” Brooks said. “A lot of the open 3s were off switches or not being in the right position, so just talking your position and knowing where you're supposed to be (needs to happen). Coach always talks about talk your position, so you can talk your way into it.”
Michigan’s own 3-point shooting hasn’t helped matters either. The Wolverines shot 26.9 percent (7-for-26) from 3-point range against the Buckeyes, marking the fourth straight game they’ve shot 30 percent or worse from beyond the arc.
Outside of Wagner, who went 4-for-8 from deep, nobody was able to dial it in from distance.
Junior forward Isaiah Livers and Brooks, the team’s top two 3-point shooters, finished a combined 3-for-12. That dropped their shooting number down to 22.2 percent (6-for-27) from 3-point range over the past four games.
“They were open shots,” Howard said. “Isaiah had some really clear, open shots that unfortunately didn't go in. … I've trusted all season long. Same song and dance.”
And even though Howard has carried a similar tune in his last two postgame pressers, it hasn’t shaken the Wolverines’ belief in their abilities.
"The confidence is at same point it was during the five-game win streak (last month) because we know we can do it,” Wagner said. “We know we have everything we need. It’s just a matter of if we're able to show what we can do. I'm very confident about my team and about everybody in the locker room. I'm sure everybody feels the same way.”