After Michigan endured possibly the toughest stretch of games anyone in the country will play — on the road against Indiana, home against Ohio State, on the road against Wisconsin and on the road against Michigan State — the Wolverines had a full week off to reflect and reassess.
One of the main takeaways after reviewing the team’s previous five games — during which Michigan went 2-3 — was that the Wolverines needed to get back to basics on the defensive side of the ball.
“Most of our stuff (over the past week) has been defense. You can see by our numbers – obviously we’ve played some really good teams in that stretch – but we did not guard Penn State as well, either,” Beilein said during media availability on Friday. “It’s something we need to get better at and get better at. You can’t slip in that.”
While it’s true that Michigan has played some of the best teams in the country over the last five games, it’s undeniable that the Wolverines’ defense hasn’t been what it was earlier in the conference season. Over Michigan’s first nine conference match-ups, it allowed more than one point possession just once. Over the team’s past five games, opponents have surpassed one point per possession four times.
Not having anyone to prepare for all week allowed the Michigan coaching staff to focus on team defense as clearly the team’s most pressing concern.
“I think coach Beilein and the coaching staff have done a great job of just emphasizing defense and just getting us back to how we were playing defense at the beginning of the season … before the Big Ten season started,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “It was great to see everyone take on the challenge of just trying to learn about defense, get back to our principles, not worry about offense, not worry about shooting – you can do that on your own time. Everyone took that to heart and really wanted to get better at it. That’s what we need.”
Illinois to provide perimeter challenge for Wolverines
Illinois’ game plan going into most match-ups isn’t rocket science. With a few tweaks here and there, it can be described in two words: Fire away.
The Illini have taken over 100 more 3-pointers this season than Michigan, a team who is fond of the long ball itself. However, in the last matchup between these two teams, Michigan held Illinois to just 23 percent shooting from beyond the arc — something the Wolverines will undoubtedly work to duplicate on Sunday.
“We defended it well last time, but they really extend you. There are some shots that DJ and Paul make that you cannot defend no matter what you do,” Beilein said. “We’ve got to be there – that’s the only way you can beat it. You cannot defend them all the way … but that will be a challenge.”
Given Michigan’s recent defensive woes, some may wonder if the Wolverines are up to the challenge of defending the 3-point shot as well as they did the first time they played Illinois. The most glaring example of Michigan’s poor perimeter defense may have come against Michigan State, when the Wolverines were seemingly unable to keep Gary Harris from getting open looks from long range. Harris made five 3-pointers against Michigan.
Beilein emphasized that much of Michigan’s perimeter defense will depend on how well the Wolverines play the pick-and-roll.
“It’s all residual of the ball screen. If you have too many guys guarding the ball screen, somebody’s going to be open. If you do not, then they’re going to get easy points inside.”
Tim Hardaway Jr. displays leadership by preparation
When Tim Hardaway Jr. was asked about what Michigan can expect from Illinois, the junior immediately rattled off some facts that showed he had done his homework.
“Looking back at some games that they played previously, at Minnesota – they lost to them first, then they came back and beat them there,” Hardaway said. “Lost to Northwestern, came back and beat Northwestern the second time they played.”
While knowing those facts on its own isn’t overly impressive, the way he talked about them showed his familiarity with Illinois. That familiarity comes from one thing Hardaway does better than any other Wolverine: preparation.
Nik Stauskas said that’s the area of Hardaway’s game coaches point out to the young players as something they should emulate.
“Bacari Alexander, the one thing he always tells me to learn about Tim is his preparation for every game. Tim watches the most film out of anyone, he studies the scouting reports more than anyone on our team,” Stauskas said. “As far as preparation, that’s definitely something I’m taking away from Tim, and as far as leadership that’s something I can take away as well.”
Injury notes: Jordan Morgan has gotten rest and will attempt to go “full-go” in practice Friday, will most likely play on Sunday … Caris LeVert will also be able to participate fully in practice on Friday, after injuring his ankle against Penn State … Max Bielfeldt injured his ankle as well on Wednesday and is listed as “questionable” for Sunday’s game.