Notebook: Michigan focused on defense heading into NCAA tournament

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Michigan 64, Illinois 63-5
Dustin Johnston

It’s no secret: Michigan’s defense hasn’t been very good this season, especially in the Big Ten.

Prior to the first game of the NCAA tournament is a popular time for fans to re-assess and dissect their teams’ strengths and weaknesses, and Michigan’s defense is a pretty glaring weakness for a team with otherwise solid Final Four credentials. The Wolverines have the third-best offense in the country, but their defense is ranked just 104th. 

In Big Ten play, Michigan’s defense was even worse. The Wolverines allowed 1.06 points per possession in Big Ten play, third-worst in the league.

Michigan’s defense, or lack thereof, means that one bad offensive performance could doom the Wolverines. On The Michigan Insider on Tuesday morning, John Beilein talked to Sam Webb about his team’s defensive struggles.

“Well there’s really good days and then there’s days when we’re individually — that’s all you need, is one guy to not be in the right position, one guy not to come out in the right stance or in the right what we call close-out and it all breaks down within seconds,” Beilein said. “When we’re all together, we’re all together.”

It makes sense that defensive chemistry would be the major issue for Michigan. The Wolverines switch on almost everything and rely on constant communication to make sure they don’t get lost on screens and that help is where it’s supposed to be. But the most glaring obstacle to that defensive unity, Beilein said, is Michigan’s youth.

“This is very common of young teams,” Beilein said. “There’s not many that are younger than us — you just lose focus on what is important in defense. You need veterans to really understand and look at the big picture here. We have to keep focused on defense or we will go home very early.”

That need for a veteran presence is one of the reasons why Jordan Morgan is so indispensable for Michigan. The redshirt senior knows the defense inside and out and is constantly directing traffic on that end of the floor. All the evidence needed for his importance defensively was provided in Michigan’s most recent matchup against Michigan State.

Beilein sees similarities between Wofford, Michigan

Contrary to most previews of Wofford, which conclude that that the Terriers are a pretty poor offensive team that plays okay defense, Michigan coach John Beilein sees some similarities between his team and the team it will be lining up against in its opening NCAA tournament game.

Oddly enough, he sees similarities on the offensive side.

“Offensively, that’s where they have a lot of comparisons to Michigan,” Beilein said. “I just think those kids really understand offense the way our kids really understand offense. They have a jump shooter who is incredible. He’s made as many threes as Nik (Stauskas). He can shoot his jumpshot over about anybody. He’s only about 6-1, he gets way up on his jumpshot.”

The jump shooter Beilein is referring to is junior guard Karl Cochran. Cochran is 77-of-194 (39.6%) on his threes. Stauskasi s 80-of-178 (44.9%) on his three-point attempts, so their quantity of long-range shots is comparable, but Stauskas is the more efficient shooter.

Wofford doesn’t like to shoot the three ball nearly as much as Michigan — its ratio of 3-pointers to field goal attempts is nearly 10 points lower than Michigan’s.

One thing is for sure: Beilein won’t be taking the Terriers lightly — even if they didn’t really have to get through Davidson in order to make the Big Dance.

“While they don’t have the seniors that you see a lot of times from the mid-majors, they have sophomores and juniors that are really playing well,” Beilein said. “So to win that conference, to get by Davidson and win that conference, you have to be a really good team. It’s been them or Davidson most years to get to the NCAA tournament. They’ve got another really good team.”

Wofford did ‘get by’ Davidson, but only because Davidson lost to Western Carolina in the conference tournament.

Derrick Walton making strides

In the first half against Michigan State, Derrick Walton was a playmaker. Michigan’s freshman point guard was driving to the basket, knocking down threes and playing strong defense on Keith Appling, who had four points and an assist in the opening frame.

Walton hits three of four shots, scored nine points and while he didn’t have an assist he pulled down four rebounds.

The rest of the game didn’t go as well, but then it didn’t go well for any of the Wolverines. John Beilein was encouraged by his point guard’s play, and has been for the past month.

“He’s really played well,” Beilein said. “All three days, he played really well. He was averaging about 25-30 minutes a game, he really played well. He’s just growing every single day.”

That being said, Beilein made it very clear that in crunch time, Walton would serve the same role as Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert served last season with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke on the team. That is, as a spectator.

“It’s no secret: when we get into crunch time, Glenn, Nik and Caris are going to be the guys who are going to be playmakers at that time as Derrick continues to learn his playmaking skills in the open court and things like that,” Beilein said. “Just like last year, where Nik and Caris and Glenn might be watching Tim and Trey do things, they just get better and get better.”

  • Wayman Britt

    I am trying to stay positive, but I am not sure UM can get better on defense in three days before the tourney. They have known all season long they need to improve on defense and not sure they have.

  • Kyle Penrod

    Need more 1-3-1 mixed in. Levert is huge in this system with his length. It saved us a couple times in last years tournament, yet we have rarely used it this year. Won’t be necessary against Wofford or TX, but against Duke and Louisville it will be essential. Bottom line is we need to hit our shots if we want to win. 6 games of hot shooting. Can it happen? We have enough 3point specialists to do it, but execution is key.

    • kam

      WHAT!?! have you not been watching lately? we have used the 1-3-1 almost half of every game we have played for the last month since we played purdue in the regular season.