Why defense might just be Michigan hoops' calling card come March

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
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Ann Arbor — Michigan has shown it has the offensive firepower, versatility and talent to blitz any opponent that crosses its path.

But Thursday was latest reminder the No. 3 Wolverines can also win in grind-it-out fashion and with ease even when shots aren’t falling thanks to their staunch defense.

That was best demonstrated midway through the second half of Michigan’s 71-64 win over Rutgers at Crisler Center, when the Wolverines slogged through a nearly seven-minute stretch where they mustered just one point.

Michigan forward Isaiah Livers (2) defends a shot by Rutgers guard Caleb McConnell (22) in the second half on Thursday. Livers had three blocks in the 71-64 win.

During that offensive slump, Michigan’s possessions went as followed: blocked shot, blocked shot, offensive foul, missed 3-pointer, turnover, missed shot, traveling violation, offensive foul, made free throw, turnover and another missed 3-pointer.

Such a brutal stretch is usually enough to sink a team and prove costly. But for the Wolverines, it hardly put a dent in their lead. Michigan led by 17 points at the start of the rough patch, which featured a scoring drought that last over five minutes. By the time the Wolverines pulled out of it, they remained in complete control as the Scarlet Knights could only whittle the deficit down to 12.

“Against them, you don't have a lot of margin for error,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “You've got to take advantage of any opportunity that you can get. Their defense is so efficient. They don't give you a lot of easy baskets.

“When you do get some mid-range stuff, you've got to make them. When you get to the rim, you've got to finish. When you get the open look, you've got to finish. Minnesota was the only team in our league that was able to do that in a game. They were able to take advantage and make some timely baskets.”

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Rutgers, though, couldn’t and struggled to crack Michigan’s defense as the Wolverines mixed up their ball screen coverages, contested shot after shot and never let their defensive intensity slip.

The Scarlet Knights went 2-for-10 from the field over the seven-minute span. They were held to numerous one-shot possessions and had several of their looks come on tough mid-range jumpers, which was a common theme throughout the night.

“That's what they do,” Pikiell said. “They're real hard to finish around the rim. They give you mid-range and we're a good mid-range shooting team. They just didn’t go. And you saw when we go to the rim, they're real hard to finish at the rim (against). They're the most efficient defensive team in our league and you can see why.

“This is as good a team as I've seen in five years."

Rutgers finished the game shooting 40.3% from the field (25-for-62) — its third lowest mark of the season — and 25% from 3-point range (3-for-12). And despite committing a season-low three turnovers and attempting 10 more shots, the Scarlet Knights never seriously threatened the Wolverines’ lead down the stretch.

When asked to evaluate the defensive effort, Michigan coach Juwan Howard praised his players for finding “ways to dig deep and keep grinding” and refusing to put their heads down during the tough second-half stretch.

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“That's a sign, in my opinion, of a team that's growing and doing whatever they can to compete out there no matter if the ball is going in the basket or not,” Howard said. “They're not making a compound mistake on the other end of the floor and that says a lot about the growth in this group.

“They understand that you still got to go back on the other end and focus on getting stops because teams are good in the Big Ten and every possession matters. …Our guys have a certain level of maturity about them that I've been impressed with from Day 1.”

While some teams might let an offensive dry spell sap their energy, effort and execution on the other end, grad transfer guard Mike Smith said team has fully bought into the notion that its defense is its offense.

“A lot of teams don't believe in that but that's the truth,” Smith said. “If we can't score, we're going to keep getting stops. If we score one point — and realistically it won't happen — in the whole game and they never score, we win the game. I think that's just how it is here in this culture that coach Juwan Howard has emphasized and brought from Miami (Heat).”

Smith said adopting that mentality and identity was a “little rocky” at first when only “bits and pieces” of players were playing defense. But now that everyone is on board, Thursday’s performance showed once again that the Wolverines are capable of relying on either end to get the job done.

“We see a lot of blocks. You don't see that too much in college,” Smith said. “But a lot us — well, not me — but a lot of everybody else is challenging shots and playing defense and trying to get that stop and rebound the ball.

“It has evolved from the beginning and I think it's going to keep getting better because if you want to win a championship, you have to play defense."

Michigan at Ohio State

Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio

TV/radio: CBS/950

Records: No. 3 Michigan 15-1, 10-1 Big Ten; No. 4 Ohio State 18-4, 12-4

Outlook: Michigan has lost two straight and five of the last seven meetings in the rivalry series. The Wolverines have also lost the past four encounters in Columbus, where they haven't won since 2014. …Ohio State has won seven straight and 10 of its past 11 games. The Buckeyes are led by forward E.J. Liddell (15.5 points) and Grand Rapids native Duane Washington Jr. (14.9 points).

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

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