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Juwan Howard, Wolverines see focus on defense pay dividends

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Like most people quarantined across the country during the spring, Juwan Howard had plenty of time to break down film and review his first season as Michigan’s head coach.

Looking back, Howard was pleased with the offensive numbers. The defensive statistics? Not so much.

The Wolverines finished last season ranked 10th in scoring defense (71.1 points) and 11th in field-goal percentage defense (43.6%) during Big Ten play. Among all Division I teams, Michigan rated in the middle of the pack nationally.

“We had our coaches' meeting and I said, 'We've got to be a kick-ass defensive team,’” Howard recalled after Michigan mauled Minnesota, 82-57, on Wednesday night. “It's that's simple, if we want to give us a chance to be one of the elite level teams in the conference and, more importantly, in college basketball.”

Michigan held Minnesota center Liam Robbins (0) to five points in Wednesday's blowout win.

When the team arrived on campus in mid-June, the first thing Howard talked about and drilled from Day 1 was defense.

“I remember doing defense like every day for like five or six days,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “Coach Howard wasn't playing. We were locked in and we all bought in.”

That has shown throughout the season and was displayed once again Wednesday as Michigan turned in another dominant defensive effort.

The Wolverines clamped down from the start  deflecting passes, disrupting plays, contesting shots and letting nothing come easy. The Gophers struggled to match the intensity and energy, mustering 26 points and missing two-thirds of their shots in the first half.

Michigan’s relentless effort and pressure never waned, and Minnesota never came close to establishing an offensive rhythm. By the end of it, the Gophers finished with a season-low 57 points, shot 32.4% from the field (22-for-68), committed 12 turnovers and attempted only six free throws.

“Michigan had a lot to do with it,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “They were taking us out of our stuff.”

Pitino added the length among Michigan’s frontcourt with Livers, sophomore wing Franz Wagner and freshman center Hunter Dickinson was particularly troublesome.

“That's a recipe for some really good defensive possessions,” Pitino said. “They're going to make you earn everything.”

The Wolverines did just that against perhaps the best center and point guard they’ve faced so far this season. Liam Robbins, the reigning Big Ten player of the week, was coming off a 27-point, 14-rebound performance against Ohio State. Marcus Carr entered the matchup as one of the top scorers in the Big Ten.

Both were neutralized, particularly Robbins. The 7-footer made his first two shots of the game but was held scoreless the rest of way by Dickinson. Robbins tied his season low with five points on a season-worst 2-for-9 shooting night, while Dickinson got it done on both ends and poured in a season-high 28 points.

“You've got to be able to guard out here in college. You can't just be a one-way player,” said Dickinson, who credited Michigan’s guards for applying ball pressure and not allowing Robbins to receive any easy entry passes.

“Coach is always telling me to be a two-way player. That's really what you've got to be at this level. Those one-way players, they really get exposed on defense. If you're just a scorer, teams will come back and attack you on the offensive end. I think that's something that I've made a big emphasis on is try to defend my position, not be a weak link out there and hold my weight for the rest of the team.”

Not to be outdone was the job senior guard Eli Brooks and senior guard Chaundee Brown did on Carr, who entered the game averaging 22.1 points. Brooks hounded Carr until he exited the game in the second half when he had a tooth knocked out in a collision.

When Brown picked up the assignment, Carr still found little success during one of his least productive outings on the season, finishing with 14 points on 16 shots and a season-low two assists.

“Eli Brooks is known for shutting down the best point guards on each team. I think he's the best defensive player in the Big Ten if you ask me,” Livers said. “We feed off his energy."

After Carr got free for a pair of 3-pointers late in the first half, Livers said Michigan wanted to disrupt him as much as possible, get in his way and “show that he can’t drive here, not today.” The Wolverines tweaked their ball-screen defense in the second half and had Dickinson hedge out on the perimeter to corral Carr.

The adjustment worked as Carr didn’t make another 3-pointer and had a tough time getting downhill. As a result, Minnesota made just three baskets over the first 13 minutes of the second half as the game turned into a blowout.

“Instead of trying to get in there and attack their physicality, we were playing on our heels, we were turning our shoulders,” Pitino said. “We had a lot of live-ball turnovers, but they had a lot to do with that. They were terrific.”

Through five Big Ten games, Michigan has held four opponents under 70 points and three of them under 40% shooting from the field.

Following their latest stout performance, the Wolverines lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense (38.1%) and blocked shots (5.6) and rank second in scoring defense (64.6 points) in conference play. They also rank No. 18 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing 0.913 points per possession.

Those are the type of defensive numbers Howard likes to see.

“Obviously guys have goals, but I think everybody on the team understands those goals will not come unless everybody locks into this team, locks into the Michigan culture,” Livers said. “Coach Howard talks about buying in. I think everybody from top to bottom has bought in.

“Everybody here just wants to win, and we will do whatever it takes.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins