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Wolverines find little humor in failing 'D'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan coach John Beilein

Michigan assistant Billy Donlon couldn’t help but take a shot at himself.

After all, Donlon, the former Wright State coach and highly regarded defensive mind, was brought in to fortify Michigan’s defense. Instead, it’s crumbled.

According to Michigan coach John Beilein, Donlon made light of the situation during an M Club luncheon on Monday.

“He started out saying that (President-elect Donald) Trump had taken him off the list to be on the cabinet of the Secretary of Defense,” Beilein said. “He's now no longer on that list after that game the other day (against Nebraska), all these games. Pretty funny way to open it up.”

However, Michigan’s porous defense has been no laughing matter. Entering Tuesday night’s contest against No. 17 Wisconsin, Michigan ranked 12th in the Big Ten in scoring defense (80.4 points), and last in field-goal percentage defense (53.4 percent), 3-point field-goal percentage defense (55.3 percent) and rebounding margin (minus-8).

After having their defense carved up by Maryland and Illinois in back-to-back losses, the Wolverines had to lean on their offense to outgun a Nebraska team that shot 56.3 percent from the field — and 50 percent beyond the arc — in last week’s 91-85 win.

In Big Ten play, Michigan has allowed all five opponents to shoot at least 47.8 percent and four of the five to shoot at least 50 percent on 3-pointers.

When asked if he saw any strides defensively on film against Nebraska, Beilein let out a forced laugh.

Michigan's Moritz Wagner rounds out game

“There were a few things,” he said, citing a pair of first-half shot clock violations before quickly shifting to what needs to be fixed. “Again, we're jumping around on defense. You can't jump around. You have to have both feet on the floor, you’ve got to use short little steps.

“This is another habit a couple of the guys have picked up over summertime basketball. They just jump from spot to spot and people just blow by you. You can't do that. You’ve got to really stay balanced all the time."

The blow byes and poor rim protection led to 44 points in the paint for the Cornhuskers, many on easy layups by Nebraska’s guards. Beilein added he’d like to see big men Mark Donnal, Moritz Wagner and D.J. Wilson be more physical in the interior and contest more shots, even if it leads to fouls.

"I think Mark, Moe and D.J. have been foul prone in the past. Now they're not and that's not necessarily good,” Beilein said. “Just being more physical and taking that chance to get a block call. When a guy is shooting the ball and you're really physical with him and get a foul, big deal. But we just can't sit and watch a guy shoot over us.

“Yes, you used to be skinny, you used to be weak. You're not anymore, so you can play like it. But it is something that we're working on it, we talk about it and they see it. And I applaud it when other teams do it."

Simpson’s growth

Freshman guard Xavier Simpson has seen his playing time increase due to foul trouble the past two games but still “has a long way to go,” according to Beilein.

Simpson had a steal, an offensive rebound and a 3-pointer in 14 minutes against Illinois. He was also on the court during the Fighting Illini’s game-changing 15-2 run to close out the first half following Derrick Walton Jr.'s costly technical foul.

Against Nebraska, Simpson had two free throws and an assist in 12 minutes but struggled to stay in front of senior guard Tai Webster and passed up on a couple of open 3-pointers.

“He has an attitude of a winner,” Beilein said. “He wants to be good. He wants his team to be good.

“He's got a lot of energy on the bench. You guys would laugh how many times he says, 'Coach, I'm ready to go in. I'm ready.' He's trying to get ready and little by little, that's our hope.”