Michigan seeks more physical, complete effort on 'D' as it enters Rutgers' 'lion's den'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

It’s been a couple of years, but Juwan Howard vividly remembers what it was like coaching from the sidelines at Rutgers for the first time.

The building was booming. The stands were packed with fans, including right behind Michigan’s bench. And the student section was rowdy and, well, a “little bit wild” at times.

Michigan guard Eli Brooks (55) says the Wolverines' defense wasn't physical enough in a loss this season to Minnesota. It's been a theme as Michigan has gotten off to a 7-5 start.

“We had beer cans thrown at us. That could be a little bit intimidating,” Howard said Monday, ahead of the Wolverines’ trip to New Jersey.

“We're going into a lion's den. It’s gonna be a tough one. But I'm looking forward to seeing our guys showing their level of competitiveness, and I know that they will be ready to compete from start to finish.”

Because if the Wolverines don’t, the Scarlet Knights already have shown what can happen. Last month during the early Big Ten slate, Rutgers pulled off a stunning upset at home by knocking off then-No. 1 Purdue on a Ron Harper Jr. buzzer-beater from near half court.

If Michigan wants to avoid a similar losing outcome, it’ll need to play with more physicality on the defensive end and match Rutgers’ toughness. As Howard pointed out, the Scarlet Knights like to attack the basket. They are active in the passing lanes. They get after their opponents, take away what foes like to run offensively and can neutralize some strengths.

That last part is what Michigan has failed to do in its recent losses. After falling at Central Florida in the nonconference finale last week, fifth-year senior guard Eli Brooks noted the team did a poor job of making the Knights “feel them” on defense and the Wolverines allowed them to get too comfortable.

Brooks had a similar postgame comment following the loss to Minnesota, stating the Wolverines weren’t physical enough on defense and the Golden Gophers were able to move freely on offense as a result. Howard, though, is confident his team will be able to make the necessary corrections and play up to the staff's standards as conference play resumes.

“We haven't had those possessions consistently where we haven't run into a team that wasn't shooting the ball well against us,” Howard said. “I look back on the North Carolina game where Caleb Love hit some deep, deep, deep 3s and I don't think I've seen him make any other deep 3s like that other than when he played against us.

“We will get better on the defensive end. We've shown it. We will continue to teach it, grow it and show it on film. We have a lot of different defensive schemes that we trust that we will continue to improve on, and we will stay positive during this process.”

Another common trend in most of Michigan’s losses has been the defensive shortcomings after halftime, something grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones pointed out after the UCF game and led him to say that the Wolverines need to be a “two-half team.”

In the loss to Arizona, the Wildcats scored 43 points and shot 57.1% from the field in the second half. It was a similar story in the loss at North Carolina, where the Tar Heels scored 43 points and shot 58.1% from the floor over the final 20 minutes.

Against Minnesota, Michigan defenders struggled to stay in front of their man after halftime as the Gophers racked up 43 points on 64% shooting from the field. Then at UCF, the Knights seemingly couldn’t miss and made the Wolverines pay for every defensive miscue in the second half to the tune of 54 points on 72% shooting.

How Howard sees it, it all boils down to the Wolverines playing with the same level of toughness and togetherness for 40 minutes.

“We’ve got to learn how to finish games and eliminate the mistakes,” Howard said. “Every time that we have a defensive breakdown or mistake, we always get hurt the wrong way. That's either with a 3 or a three-point play from our opponent at the wrong time. But that's part of learning how to win and I believe we are doing that."

Michigan at Rutgers

► Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jersey Mike’s Arena, Piscataway, New Jersey

► TV/radio: BTN/950

► Records: Michigan 7-5, 1-1 Big Ten; Rutgers 7-5, 1-1

► Outlook: Michigan has never lost to Rutgers since it joined the Big Ten in 2014-15 and leads the all-time series 14-0. …Senior guard Ron Harper Jr. leads Rutgers in scoring (14.9 points), rebounding (7.4) and 3-point shooting (39%). The Scarlet Knights rank 11th in the conference in 3-point shooting (30.6%), 12th in field-goal percentage (42.3%) and 13th in scoring (68.1 points).


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins