Wojo: Defensive work ethic reviving Michigan’s season

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — This was a pounding with a purpose. The Wolverines know how they’re viewed and what they’ve been called, and the only way to alter perceptions is to alter their mentality.

So here they were, jumping in passing lanes, taking charges, blocking shots, reducing high-powered Indiana to absolute rubble. Michigan was dominant in every way in its 90-60 romp Thursday night, climbing back into the middle of the Big Ten pack.

The 90 was the showpiece but the 60 was the story, and the inspiration was evident. Frankly it looked personal for the Wolverines, and it should be. The numbers haven’t lied about their weak defense, and opponents haven’t lied about their passiveness. Two weeks ago, Illinois’ Maverick Morgan called them “white collar” after an easy victory, and the Wolverines have played four tough games since, winning three.

Oh, they still have to prove they can win on the road — 0-5 so far — and they’ll get a chance Sunday against Michigan State, both 4-4 in the conference. They still have to prove they can sustain the energy and tenacity as they hit the grist of their schedule, but on this night, they made their point, and not by just making their shots.

They blistered the Hoosiers, shooting 63 percent, with senior Derrick Walton Jr. attacking the rim again and again. Even more impressive, they held an Indiana team that led the Big Ten in scoring (84.2) to its lowest total of the season. They forced 16 turnovers, and while some of it was horrendous Hoosier sloppiness, plenty of it was Michigan’s withering aggressiveness.

A year ago in the Crisler Center, Indiana unleashed a 25-0 run in a romp over Michigan. Images like that are what the Wolverines (14-7) are still trying to erase.

“We came out with a bad taste in our mouth from last year, and we wanted to just keep our foot on the gas,” senior Zak Irvin said. “I wouldn’t say I’m surprised because I’ve seen us do this in practice, and we show spurts of it in games. For us to shoot the ball that well, I always see that happening. But for us to check on the defensive end the way we did, that’s really something special.”

Tough enough

It helped that Indiana is discovering a new reality with star sophomore OG Anunoby out for the season with a knee injury. But Michigan took advantage with a relentless effort, and settled for nothing.

Moritz Wagner crashed inside instead of roaming the perimeter and scored 14. D.J. Wilson continued to ratchet his defense with four blocked shots, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman held leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. to four points. The Hoosiers still shot 54.5 percent, but couldn’t scrape together enough possessions to make it matter. That was partly because their potent board-swarming was nullified, held to five offensive rebounds.

UM keeps foot on the gas, cruises past Indiana

Since their 1-3 Big Ten start, the Wolverines’ lone loss was a tight one, 68-64 at Wisconsin. In the next two weeks, they’ll face Michigan State and Indiana on the road, so the real tests are just starting. But this is what Michigan has been looking for, and it’s pretty much when it had to happen. The Wolverines know they’re not legitimate contenders unless they play legitimate defense.

“They see the numbers, and they don’t like it,” John Beilein said. “They don’t like the challenge put in front of us, that maybe we’re not tough enough in the Big Ten. They’re embracing it and trying to do something about it.”

Street fightin’ men

This isn’t about one flippant white-collar jab, but that did resonate with them. Before the rematch against Illinois, assistant coach Billy Donlon scrawled on the locker room wall, “Street fight,” and the Wolverines went out and hammered the Illini. Then they hammered the Hoosiers considerably worse.

It remains to be seen if they can win a street fight on the road, but their confidence is rocketing at the right time.

“As a point guard, I think that’s a reflection on me, to call a team white collar,” Walton said. “The point guard kind of heads the identity of the team. As a person that’s never had anyone question my toughness, it made me do a little self-evaluation, and want to play with a lot more grit.”

It was evident in Walton from the start Thursday night, as he flawlessly ran the offense. He only took two 3-pointers, recognizing that driving to the basket is the tougher way to drive a team. It was all on display as the Wolverines showed what they can do very well, and what they must continue to do better to punctuate their point. @bobwojnowski