Niyo: Michigan’s postseason hopes rest on its defense

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — John Beilein was a skeptic. He’ll be the first to admit that.

And he’s still might not be a true believer yet. Not after two months of Big Ten play, or even his 40-plus years of coaching, for that matter.

But the way this Michigan team is buying in, the way his Wolverines are buckling down defensively — something they did again Sunday in a 74-62 victory over eighth-ranked Ohio State in the home finale at Crisler Center — it’s getting harder and harder to deny the shifting paradigm.

Tournament time is right around the corner, and the Wolverines are looking like a pretty dangerous team because of their defense, not in spite of it.

Back in late December, Beilein wasn’t convinced that’d be the case, even though some of the nonconference signs were positive.

“I’ll believe it more when we’re doing it every night,” he said then, pointing to all the new faces in new places on the court for his team.

And now? Well, they’re not doing it every game. But the Wolverines are playing defense well enough to win games when they aren’t shooting the lights out. Which was the case again Sunday, as Michigan and Ohio State slugged it out in a loosely called rivalry clash that saw both teams grinding the gears early on, scoring a combined 63 points on 68 first-half possessions.

“I give Michigan credit for making it difficult for us to run offense,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “They’re a good defensive team. They just forced our guards to make plays, crawled up into us, really pressured us.”

In short, they did some of the same things the Buckeyes did to them in the first meeting in early December, when Ohio State ratcheted up its defensive intensity and rallied from a 20-point deficit to win in Columbus.

Sunday’s performance was far from flawless in that regard. Michigan has been among the nation’s leaders (currently 12th) in defensive rebounding percentage — a far cry from some of Beilein’s previous teams here — but Ohio State pounded the offensive glass, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds, led by senior Jae’Sean Tate. Beilein also was grumbling about his team getting backed down defensively too many times in this one.

Finding the weakness

Still, in the end, it was an impressive effort. The Wolverines targeted an opponent’s weaknesses — Ohio State’s guard play is lacking, and Holtmann’s team won’t beat you from the three-point line — and used them to undermine their strength. Michigan held Ohio State, which came in leading the Big Ten in two-point field goal percentage (56.4), to just 19-of-47 shooting (40.4 percent) from inside the arc Sunday.

We saw signs of this late last season, when Beilein finally began to see results for doing something he’d never really done, handing over the bulk of his team’s defensive coaching responsibilities to assistant Billy Donlon.

This year, with Donlon moving on to take a job at Northwestern, that role shifted to new assistant Luke Yaklich, who has taken it to another level. Defense, Beilein says, “is all he thinks about.” And when Yaklich dissects opponents and comes up with a defensive gameplan, he doesn’t get much argument from Beilein, who chuckles, “We do almost everything he suggests.”

That goes for ideas big and small, like the occasional full-court pressure we saw again Sunday as point guard Zavier Simpson — Michigan’s resident “pit bull,” according to Beilein — hounded Ohio State’s guards after made baskets.

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“Last year, I would never imagine myself pressuring someone full court,” Simpson said. “But that’s something Coach Luke and I are trying to slide in, that we can start doing more. And I feel like when I start doing that, my energy is contagious.”

All of this is, it seems. And maybe it’s a case of Beilein finally catching on, understanding after a decade of losing too many Big Ten brawls for his liking, that it’s OK to draw up a play at one end of the court and then simply demand a play be made at the other end.

“You get down to it and you realize that all the pretty plays or all the three-point shooting doesn’t win games,” said Beilein, long hailed as one of college basketball’s offensive wizards. “You’ve got to be able to really defend. In my earlier coaching career, I was more into technique and scheme, and I think much more it’s now, ‘You’ve got that guy. (It’s) a personal battle. Who’s gonna win?’ And I think we’ve taken that on.”

Example No. 1

Take the case of senior Duncan Robinson, a former Division III transfer Beilein took a chance on a few years ago largely because of his elite shooting ability. He’s never going to make anyone’s all-defensive team, struggling to stay in front of smaller wings or closing out on shooters.

“But he has challenged himself and we’ve challenged him, to say, ‘You can do this,’” Beilein said. “You look at him out there and you watch his athleticism and you say, ‘Well, we’re gonna attack that guy.’ That was the M.O. on him for three years: ‘Attack him.’”

But like this team, Robinson has turned the tables a bit. Simpson challenged him a week ago to show more emotion on the court, and he has. The coaches have pressed him to work harder on his positioning and his lateral movement in an attempt to help him defend better without fouling. And he has done that, too.

In Wednesday’s win over Iowa, Robinson helped limit the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer, Tyler Cook, to 10 points, despite giving up 40 pounds in the paint. Sunday, he teamed with freshman Isaiah Livers to hound Keita Bates-Diop, the likely Big Ten player of the year, into a dismal 5-of-17 shooting performance. Robinson, who hit a season-high six three-pointers against Iowa, didn’t make a shot from the field against Ohio State, yet to Beilein’s eye, “He was absolutely terrific.”

“That’s been a good reason why we’ve had success here in February, is Duncan Robinson’s defense,” Beilein added. “Not his threes. His defense.”

The end result?

Who knows how far this defensive renaissance can take them?

Michigan leads the Big Ten in scoring defense, though that’s still due in part to their offense, which doesn’t give up easy transition baskets. The Wolverines don’t commit many turnovers — only seven Sunday — and they don’t attack the offensive glass. Those Beilein principles will never change, nor should they.

But it’s telling that when you ask some of the Wolverines why they think they’ll be a tough out in March — first in the Big Ten tourney and then in the NCAAs — they all mention one thing. It’s not just Beilein’s offense, which is a nightmare to prepare for on short notice. Or their three-point shooting, which isn’t what it was a year ago, even if freshman Jordan Poole is providing a spark off the bench.

No, if you ask senior co-captain Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman, he’ll tell you it’s “the ability to play defense.” And with a team that’s now ranked in the top 20 nationally in defensive efficiency — in late February — Beilein can’t really argue at this point.

“I think we’re playing the right way,” he said, “at the right time.”