Michigan coach talks about his team's performance coming off a 68-64 loss at Wisconsin and looks ahead to Saturday's rematch against Illinois. James Hawkins
Ann Arbor — It was the shot heard around the Michigan basketball team’s locker room.
Following an 85-69 drubbing on Jan. 11 where Illinois ran the Wolverines out of the State Farm Center, Fighting Illini center Maverick Morgan called Michigan “more of a white-collar team traditionally.”
The dig at the team’s lack of toughness and grit didn’t sit well with several Wolverines. More than a week later, it still doesn’t.
“Believe it or not, I'd be lying if I said it didn't (motivate us),” senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. said. “I don't think it motivates you any more than a coach getting on you and telling you that you need to pick it up or a teammate.
“I think it's somewhat slightly disrespectful. As grown men, young men that are so competitive, anybody who goes against what we stand for there's some backlash that needs to be on the other end of that.”
While the remark won’t be written on a dry erase board or plastered on the walls in the locker room, Walton said it has become an “unspoken thing” that will be in the back of their minds when the two teams square off again Saturday at Crisler Center.
“I think a lot of it gets confused by the way we carry ourselves opposed to other teams,” Walton said. “I think we do things the right way but then again, we do play the game with an edge. That doesn't make us any different than anybody else. I think we’re just kind of confused with the way we carry ourselves off the court.”
Michigan coach John Beilein said initially he didn’t view Morgan’s comment as a slight, adding that being white collar doesn’t always translate to being soft.
“My dad worked his tail off for 40 years in a paper mill. But he also happened to work in the office and wore a white collar every day and I never saw anybody work so hard in my life,” Beilein said on WTKA’s “Michigan Insider” on Friday morning. “I think it means that we're not a tough team, so they don't think we're a tough team and our kids know that that's a question mark many times.
“We have to work hard and be a tougher team in every respect of the game. I hope we see that on Saturday.”
Beilein later noted he understood the implication and “that’s the perception until we change the perception by playing with more edge.”
Through the first four games of Big Ten play, Michigan’s defense was a punching bag that took every team’s best shot. It allowed Iowa, Penn State, Maryland and Illinois to shoot at least 48 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from 3-point range.
But following the Illinois beatdown — Michigan’s only conference game decided by 10 points or more — Walton spearheaded a players-only meeting to talk about what needed to be done to turn the season around. In the two games since, the Wolverines have made subtle strides on defense.
Michigan was able to come up with just enough stops down the stretch against Nebraska to gut out a win, despite allowing the Cornhuskers to shoot 56.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc. The Wolverines followed that up with their best defensive performance in Big Ten play, limiting Wisconsin to 45.3 percent shooting and 37.5 percent on 3-pointers in a narrow loss.
“I think (we have) a locker room full of tough guys. They just show it in different ways,” said Walton, who was a “full go” at Friday’s practice after suffering a sore lower back at Wisconsin.
“Toughness isn't always rah-rah and beating on your chest. It's doing the little things within the game and diving on the floor, taking charges is part of toughness in my definition. I don't think it's a switch. I think before our (players-only) meeting, it really showed us a sense of urgency needs to be shown. Guys take it serious and you can tell within their play and effort.”
With NCAA Tournament hopes dimming, that urgency is raised to another level as the Wolverines (12-7, 2-4 Big Ten) enter a stretch with four of five at home and a vital opportunity to climb back into the Big Ten race.
“We haven’t started the way we wanted to or planned to (in the Big Ten),” redshirt sophomore forward D.J. Wilson said. “These next few games are going to be real critical. Hopefully, we can win as many as we can and starting tomorrow get on a roll and carry that momentum on.”
And maybe even change some minds in the process.
Illinois at Michigan
Tip-off: 2:15 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: BTN/WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 12-7, 2-4 Big Ten; Illinois 12-7, 2-4
Outlook: Senior F Zak Irvin is coming off back-to-back 20-point performances for the first time since the start of the 2014-15 season…Michigan is shooting 48.9 percent (129-for-264) from the field and 42.4 percent (42-for-99) from 3-point range over the last five games…Illinois has lost two straight since beating Michigan at home on Jan. 11.