Niyo: Defense helps Wolverines make the grade

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan's Jon Teske defends against Maryland's Jalen Smith in the first half.

Ann Arbor — Michigan coach John Beilein handed his players blank sheets of paper the other day and asked them to grade themselves.

The teachers do enough of their own grading already, what with the practices serving as daily pop quizzes and the tests coming once or twice a week as the sixth-ranked Wolverines grind their way through the Big Ten schedule.

But with his team fuming after an ugly loss at Penn State on Tuesday night, Beilein and his staff figured the time was right for the students to do a little introspection, focusing less on X’s and O’s and more on their film-study work or their eating and sleeping habits

“We’re asking 'em to look inside themselves a little bit,” the coach explained. “Let’s do all the right things now, as we get closer to March, so that we can be a good team in March. You just can’t turn it around. … Don’t let it slip now.”

Saturday, they sure didn’t, seizing control of their game against No. 24 Maryland and refusing to let it — or their footing atop the Big Ten standings — slip away in another wire-to-wire win.

The end result was a 65-52 victory that looked so familiar — with a sterling defensive effort providing the difference — that it’s starting to feel ingrained here.

The Wolverines haven’t lost consecutive games in more than two full years — not since early February 2017 — and they’ve now won 22 in a row on their home court, the second-longest streak in program history.

The common denominator isn’t hard to figure, either. In their eight Big Ten games at Crisler Center this season, just one opponent has scored more than 60 points. And Maryland’s offensive performance Saturday stands as its worst of the season, both in terms of efficiency and total points.

“I’m sure they’d like to have played a little better offensively, but defensively they were everywhere, dialed in,” Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon said. “You could tell it was a team coming off a loss.”

Defensive urgency

Beilein, for his part, said he could tell that long before tip-off. He called the Penn State effort “our worst defensive game in two years,” and could tell by the way his team responded in practice — following the lead of Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews, Michigan’s co-captains and defensive stalwarts — that Maryland was in for a rough afternoon.

“There was a sense of urgency,” Beilein said. “We might not make shots … but I had no doubt our defense would be strong today.”

And there’s little doubt that’ll be the case the rest of the way for this team, which still ranks as one of the best three or four defensive teams in the country. The work Matthews did at the defensive end against Maryland, shutting down Eric Ayala (0-for-7) and then hounding point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. for a stretch after switching assignments with Simpson, was remarkable. And if you ask Turgeon, the performance center Jon Teske turned in against his star big man, Bruno Fernando, was just as impressive, if not more so.

No, the only real question here remains at the other end of the court. And since we were talking about grades this week, I asked sophomore forward Isaiah Livers after Saturday’s game what grade he’d give the Wolverines offense at this point in the season. He thought about it for a moment, then settled on a B. “A solid B,” he said, nodding.

At first glance, that seems a little generous. But really, that’s because Beilein’s teams tend to get graded on a curve. He’s widely viewed as one of the game’s best offensive minds, and prior to last season’s surprising run to the national title game, his most successful NCAA tournament teams — including those U-M squads in 2013, ’14 and even ’17 — all won largely because of their elite offensive efficiency.

Last year’s run was fueled by the defense, though. And at the moment, that feels like it’ll be even more of a necessity this time around, though Beilein remains bullish on the offensive upside, at least publicly.

“The ball still sticks, at times,” he said Saturday. “But it is moving better, we’re seeing each other, and that’s the way we’re gonna have to play.”

Fun run

The X-factor remains Jordan Poole, whose offensive funk is the most confounding part of this 23-3 machine. The sophomore shooting guard didn’t force any bad shots Saturday, and he took it strong to the hole on a few occasions, scoring a big bucket in transition and then getting to the line early in the second half to help keep the Terrapins at arm’s length.

But Poole continues to struggle from beyond the arc. He was 0-for-3 Saturday and is now 20-of-74 (27 percent) from 3-point range since the resumption of Big Ten play at the start of January. Not coincidentally, Michigan hasn’t been much better as a team, shooting less than 31 percent from deep in that same 13-game stretch.

And not that they needed any reminders of what’s missing, but there were a few sitting courtside Saturday. Moe Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman — the top three shooters from last season’s Final Four team — all were back in attendance for this game. (That trio combined for 214 made 3-pointers a year ago — 14 more than this year’s entire team has through 26 games.)

Beilein and his assistants keep encouraging others to hunt for their shot — be it Livers or Ignas Brazdeikis or even Teske, who finally rattled in his seventh 3-point attempt after coming up short on his first six Saturday —  and the message won't change: Fire away when open.

"We always say, ‘Go 0-for-8 before you go 0-for-2,’ " Livers said. "It’s better if you keep shooting it."

But it'd be best if Poole finds his form, and unless or until he does, it’s hard to imagine Michigan’s outside shooting numbers changing all that dramatically.

All the more reason Beilein has been imploring his players the past few weeks to take advantage of their league-best defense and turn some of those stops into fast-break opportunities.

They capitalized on a few early Saturday — Beilein, mic’d up for the Big Ten Network, celebrated with Matthews at one point, yelling, “It’s fun to run, isn’t it?” — but Michigan still managed to turn 13 Maryland first-half turnovers into just 10 fast-break points.

They’ll need more than that down the stretch if they want to hold off Michigan State for the Big Ten crown. And they’ll likely need some more shots to fall to go on a run in March like the one we saw last spring.

But in the meantime, they know where they stand. And they feel like they've got as good a shot as anybody.

“We have our ups and downs on offense,” Livers said. “But we can always count on our defense.”