Michigan coaches and players can talk about defense and toughness until they are a blue in the face, but right now this team can’t play it.

Maryland walked out of the Crisler Center with a win on Saturday afternoon and it was because the Wolverines just couldn’t stop them. The Terps made 10-of-15 three-point attempts on the afternoon and scored an easy 1.25 points per possession.

Michigan fought back from a 9-point halftime deficit, but Maryland had an answer every time the lead was trimmed to a single possession. The Wolverines were able to get back into the game because they held Maryland to just 1 point in the first 9 possessions of the second half.

Then the Terps responded by scoring on 17 of the final 22 possessions of the game — that’s 39 points in 22 possessions, or 1.77 points per possession in the final 14:30 of the game.


Yes, Maryland was hot from three-point range. Jared Nickens had a 31.5 eFG% entering the game and hit four triples on four attempts. Melo Trimble and Anthony Cowan hit some deep step back threes late in the clock. Whatever, sooner or later you have to figure out ways to get stops.

Teams are now making 41.4% of their threes against Michigan and 54.7% (!) in league games. There are only 9 three-point defenses in the country that have been worse than that this season.

Maryland made 10 threes on 15 attempts. Maryland rebounded over a third of its misses. Maryland scored on 17 of its final 22 possessions, 12 of its last 15, 7 of its last 8. You get the picture. The Wolverines couldn’t get a stop and that’s why they lost this game.

Michigan’s offense isn’t the problem. Through three games its on pace to be the second or third best offense in the conference despite playing two of the top four defenses in the league. Scoring 1.13 points per possession should be good enough to win Big Ten games. The Terps have only given up that many points per possession once this season.

But it all comes back to defense and making winning plays down the stretch. Maryland had the answers every time and the Wolverines came up just short. Silly turnovers, poor shot selection, missing critical late free throws. You can point to Michigan’s executional mistakes offensively, and there were plenty of them, but if you don’t get any stops then you are forcing yourself to be nearly perfect offensively and this team isn’t that.

What’s the answer? It has to come from inside somehow, but if it hasn’t happened yet… It’s not like the Wolverines can make sweeping personnel changes. Who in the starting lineup, or the rotation, would be described as an above-average defender?

The only team that I can remember that turned an awful defense into a decent one was the 2010-11 Michigan team. That group allowed 1.22 points per trip over its first 7 conference games and then turned the season around in East Lansing and made the tournament. Is that repeatable? I’m not sure with this group.

John Beilein didn’t have a great game either. When he rolled out the the 1-3-1 zone after a Maryland timeout, it felt like a layup was inevitable. It was. I get the idea of going zone out of a timeout and understand that Maryland was terrible against Nebraska’s 1-3-1 zone, but when was the last time that Michigan got a stop out of the 1-3-1?

I also don’t understand using a starter to intentionally foul in the final minute of the first half — especially by a coach who has historically been so foul averse. That was a big reason why Walton found himself in foul trouble early in the second half.

Next up, another road game as Michigan heads to Champaign. If you want to argue that any Big Ten team other than Wisconsin is significantly better than any other then go ahead, but at this point I have no idea. Right now KenPom projects 11 of 14 teams to finish between 7-11 and 11-7. There are winnable games on the schedule, but sooner or later this team must defend.

Player Bullets

  • Moritz WagnerWagner seemed to be involved in every significant play — good or bad. He had some brilliant moments offensively in the second half — kudos to him for attacking more in the second after settling for threes in the first — and seemed to keep Michigan in it with his scoring, but he’s going to need to develop more counters. He always goes right and has a scoutable set of moves. He also hasn’t shown the consistent ability to pass out of them. He was far from the only one, but his defense was a major issue on the day. He was lost in the pick-and-roll game from the opening tip defensively and never really recovered.
  • Muhammad-Ali Abdur-RahkmanAbdur-Rahkman had some strong drives to the hoop, but he still is clearly lacking confidence. He missed a wide open breakaway layup and his jumpshot is still missing in action. He’s now shooting 29% from three-point range and that’s a bit of a black hole in the corner of the U-M offense.
  • DJ WilsonWilson couldn’t guard Justin Jackson one-on-one (Jackson finished with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting), but he made up for some of those problems with some offense. He knokced down all three of his long range attempts and also had a run out dunk.
  • Xavier SimpsonSimpson had a few bright moments (something we’ve seen more often lately) as he handed out a pair of assists in 9 minutes. I like his defense and think that at this point he’s going to have to start playing a few more minutes as Walton continues to struggle.
  • Mark DonnalDonnal gave Michigan some solid defense in the first half after Wagner looked completely lost in ball screen coverage early. Donnal finished with 5 points and six boards in 15 minutes in one of his better performances in a while.
  • Zak IrvinIrvin hit some shots, but he attempted as many threes of the dribble as twos and had 5 turnovers to 3 assists. I thought he was doing the right things — looking for the roll man, trying to get to the basket, but he just couldn’t execute consistently enough.
  • Derrick WaltonTwo of Maryland’s biggest threes in the second half were stepback jumpers over Walton in shot clock situations. Those are the shots that we’d be screaming if Walton or Irvin took, but Maryland made them (and just about every other three) and part of that has to fall on Walton doing a better job contesting. Offensively he made two shots, a left-handed three to open the game and a late layup in the final minute, and handed out only one assist.
  • Duncan Robinson: I’d have to go back and watch the film, but by my tracking it was Robinson who got lost or screened on at least three of Nickens’ triples.
  • ChathaM

    Thanks Dylan. I didn’t get a chance to watch the game, but I recorded it. I may just delete it, but probably won’t be able to help myself, and will watch tonight.

    • gobluemd16

      Save yourself the time, trust me. This one was super frustrating.

  • Andy

    One of the worst off ball defenders is Irvin. He gets lost often- his help is late, and he gets face cut and back cut quite a bit. His ball defense is pretty decent. I think his bad D gets overlooked because of Mo and DRob’s struggles.

    Have to lengthen bench and entrust minutes to others. This team is full of role players that would be good to spell solid starters. Problem is these guys have to log starter minutes.

    Good write up!

    • Irvin is definitely not great off the ball. He’s improved at least a bit in straight up man-to-man on the perimeter, but he sleeps defensively a lot.

      • bobohle

        And Beilein has said in the past that Irvin is one of their best defenders.

    • A2MIKE

      If Irvin is the worst off ball defender, it is mostly because Walton and Robinson can’t stay in front of a turtle off the dribble, literally can’t stay in front of anyone.

      • Andy

        That’s a defensive philosophy problem then. Off ball guys one pass away should always be ready to give early help. Ball defenders have to have some trust their help will be there, particularly if the defense is centered around early help. Shouldn’t be asking guys to play “straight up” in today’s game. I don’t think Michigan is asking that; it’s quite clear they have, at least early this year, emphasized help side D and rotations.

        It’s also clear this team isn’t a good defensive team on the ball, which requires a ton of commitment to helpside guys; in turn, it can make a D look even worse if the help isn’t there- hedges, help line, etc.

  • Coltrane

    I don’t know how Walton, a senior, doesn’t defend the 3 better. I understand a lot of the lapses from the younger guys but not Walton. I don’t know if he fears getting blown by, maybe that’s a fair concern with Wagner and Wilson not exactly reliable rim protectors. Generally though, Walton just doesn’t seem himself. He’s had 4 years playing for one of the best offensive minds in the game and yet his floor recognition just doesn’t seem to be there once his first option is taken away.

    • Wayman Britt

      I think the answer is that Walton is just not that good. Has not improve from when he was a freshman.

      • Fab 5 Legends

        Agree, he has not improved but it only seems he has taken a step back this year unfortunately…or maybe he’s playing through injures we ar unaware of

  • AA7596

    Before the season, one question stood out about U-M: Could a finesse program suddenly change its stripes and play tougher defensively?

    We’re seeing the answer. To build off what Dylan said at the top of the recap, you can’t just talk about defense or even hire an assistant for it; you have to recruit for it, too.

    Wagner for one should improve, but at a certain point, I don’t know how much you can expect to get out of guys who aren’t as quick, strong or aggressive as the people they’re guarding. It’s like faulting Xavier Simpson for not being taller.

  • Wayman Britt

    Lots of questions for this team this year:
    1. Can DW stay in front of his man or defend the three?
    2. Can anybody beside Wagner drive to the hoop?
    3. Can the perimeter players guard against the three?
    4. Will opposing students sections begin chanting NIT when UM has the ball?

    I think most UM fans will not be happy with the answers.

    • Fab 5 Legends

      At this point we will definely be NIT team, and on the outside looking in for NCAA…

      I think Wagner is the only one who can drive…Rahkman had a couple nice drive and Walton did too…but we are a jump shot team…which is our downfall…Irvin had a late take to the basket and didnt know what to do by the rim…

      • Irvin had several good drives to the basket today.

        • Fab 5 Legends

          Oh ok, glad to hear that – he has been very 1 dimensional in his career imo… I caught the start and the ending of the game…saw a weak take by Irvin before we started fouling

          Walton rushed 3 at the end wasn’t the best decision too

  • Fab 5 Legends

    I’m glad Wagner/Wilson continue to have good games, I’m glad Beilein gives them the greenlight…they are our most important players…Walton/Irvin have been disappointing as seniors…teams will focus on defending them as a priority too

    • robpollard

      Yes, I’m going to continue to focus on Wagner & Wilson, and to a lesser extent X and Robinson. They not only contribute this year (and Wagner should be our number 1 option on offense right now, if he isn’t already), but it gives me a hope for next year — we’ll have NBA caliber players near their collegiate peak (Wagner’s definitely a 1st rounder after his junior year; Wilson probably a 2nd after his senior) along with some new blood.

      Walton and Irvin? Too many TOs, too much getting lost on D / poor closing out. They try hard and make some nice plays, and I’m sure they’ll win a game or two by getting hot later in the year. But one assist in 32 minutes from a senior PG? Please.

      • Fab 5 Legends

        Completely agree with your comments

  • Fab 5 Legends

    I think the biggest problem is that we were SPOILED with our previous recruits in recent years…which makes Irvin/Walton years under a microscope…there roles as freshmen were great and both played well – seemed like having a lot of potential but that was more to do with having Stauskas, GRIII, Morgan, Levert, Spike

    • Fab 5 Legends

      These last 2 years they have had a lot of pressure to perform…maybe our role player just have not been good enough…Wagner/Wilson are great pieces but our defense is just not there

  • Wayman Britt

    Should Simpson be getting more time over Walton?

    Maybe it’s time to see if Simpson could provide a spark. Walton has not improved from his freshman year. He clearly cannot create for himself. He cannot drive and finish at the rim. Simpson may have a hard time scoring, but let’s give him more minutes and see what happens, because DW has had four years and we know what he provides.

    • Chris De Sana

      Not sure if he should get more? But he should get as many minutes at the PG spot which could lead to Walton moving to the SG to hunt shots.

  • Chris De Sana

    It really comes down to this….. in this system you will win or lose based on the play of the PG – Walton and SG – Irvin. If they out play the other teams PG and SG we have a chance if not probably not.

    The offense is based on either or both being able to take their man off the dribble to create space and opportunity for the rest. Neither is really good enough at it to make the offense as good as it was under Trey, Nik or Caris when healthy.

    On defense neither is really capable of keeping the man they are checking in front of them off the bounce and too often lose track of their man away from the ball.

    In the absence of such a player it puzzles me why coach has not looked at those match ups where Michigan seems to have an advantage, and the only one I see is Moe in high post or down on the block.

  • Chris De Sana

    Just wondering if we continue to struggle to guard pretty much anyone 1 on 1 especially up top if it is not time to try a 2-3 match up zone? It would probably save on those cheap reach in fouls committed by our bigs 20 feet away from the rim. And would allow for DJ to be more of a rim protector when opposing guards try to take it to the rim.

  • Mattski

    I’m a Beilein supporter, and don’t assume that he is going anywhere, at least not this year. But I do notice what looks like a pretty clear need for reality testing–even on the part of the biggest critics–when it comes to our chances for the NCAAs; I think they’re pretty slim. Looking down that schedule, you must assume that every team on it gives us a serious fight.

    I also think that it must be an enormous challenge for Beilein, at this stage, to decide about practice emphasis. I myself was noting that the offense wasn’t the problem yesterday, but. . . the 3s aren’t falling at the usual really high rate. What kind of offensive machine might he have right now if he had not devoted a lot of time to D? In better re-orienting the offesnes (for example) to the bigs? Should he just spend practices emphasizing it now? With the thin roster he’s got? How related is the lack of fire to the fact that his leaders are averaging 37-38 minutes? And at what point do you accept that your team is not going to overachieve and start giving the younger guys big minutes? When a few, so far, have not shown much readiness at all?

    Just crapping on people from the safe anonymity of your desk chair has always struck me as lame, especially when–we can generally assume–that the posters are not as skilled, competent, or insightful about what they’re looking at as the people they criticize. Instead of running Beilein or the players down with the same arguments ad nauseum, I’d like to see some conversation here about what we’ve really got in the fold for next year. I see a lot of promising pieces but wonder if X can run the team.

    • robpollard

      To answer your questions, since you asked:
      – They should focus on defense, if they had to choose. We’ve heard about the defensive focus since the beginning of the year, and it has not shown up — at all. That said, maybe it just will take time. But they have got to play better (which shouldn’t be hard, but apparently is). But this is major college basketball — you need to find time for offense, rebounding, etc too.

      – Speaking of major college basketball, these players literally signed up for this scrutiny, both positive and negative. I agree just saying “Person ABC sucks! He’ls a joke!” or similar is uncalled for, but analyzing and critiquing someone’s game is well-within bounds. For example, it is appropriate to note Walton played poorly yesterday, and played poorly most of the game against Penn State — he isn’t shooting well, he isn’t distributing the ball well (too many TOs; not enough assists) and his defense is bad. If you want to focus on what we should do, looking honestly at what is happening now is the first step.

      And with that in mind, X needs to get more run at the PG. He is not confident, at all, as a shooter, but he seems to be slowly improving there. His passing and on ball defense are already adequate and at least comparable to Walton. He should be getting at least 15 minutes a game, and move Walton to the bench for half of that and SG for the other portion. X is clearly growing by playing — so play him more. Walton’s level of play is making Walton’s minutes expendable.

      Beilein can’t give up on this year, as a) the B1G is not very good so while there are a lot of loseable games coming up, they are all (except for maybe at Indiana; we don’t play at Purdue) that are winnable and b) this team has enough talent and experience in that environment to make the tourney. UM should, with this talent, be able to go 10-8 in the B1G; the fact that they are currently NIT-bound is on Beilein as much as the players and he needs to figure it out.

      • Chris De Sana

        Great post

      • A2MIKE

        Agree on all points. I think something that gets lost in the shuffle is the offense switched with Darius Morris to more of a ball screen oriented offense and less of a ball movement back cut offense. This was great in that it utilized our strong PG play with Morris, Burke and then Stauskas.

        The problem that we now have is Walton is a below average pick n roll player, and even more below average passer. So we play through Irvin more, but he is hit or miss, as evidenced by 5 turnovers yesterday. I agree that it is too early to give up on this season, but outside of the last 7 minutes against Furman and Penn State, Walton has played poorly, in fact some of the worst games of his 4 year career, therefore X needs to play more, for better or worse.

        • AA7596

          This is all true, but it’s off point. Offense isn’t the problem when you score 70 points in 62 possessions and still lose.

          • Yep, all of this talk about the offense changing, etc. and needing to change again.. I don’t get it. Michigan’s offense is great right now, has basically had two bad games. Scored enough points per possession to win in every other game.

          • A2MIKE

            But that’s the point. X is much better defensively and if you are getting nothing from Walton and still scoring 1.15 to 1.2 PPP you need to play X more to make the team better defensively without sacrificing much offense.

          • Does X appear to be more disruptive and better on the ball? Yes. Is he better off the ball? Probably not.

            Quantifying the differences (on offense and defense) is very tough to do.

          • A2MIKE

            yes and no. I feel like X has much better “defensive instincts” than Walton. A couple times this year he has anticipated a pass and picked it off. You never see Walton do that. I am sure that, without watching film, Walton is better in help situations and with rotations, but it’s not like Walton is great at that either. He is a poor defender all around.

      • Mattski

        One problem is that none of our games, the second half of UCLA apart–have been blowouts. While games are in the balance, it’s hard for Beilein to experiment with anything. Agree that X looks better and better, but as to his ability to run the team in inspired, successful fashion. . . I would love to see it but am not convinced.

  • Amaizeman

    It’s hard to conceptualize this team. It’s unlike other Beilein teams. Of course we remember the Burke / Hardawag era, but remember the Novak / Douglas era. Remember the energy, effort, competitiveness, and leadership.

    Where did that go ? And how did it go away ? I want that Michigan team back. The team the had a clear goal, played hard, and gave everything they had, even if the opposing team had more talent.

    • Chris De Sana

      Exactly….. we have had periods where we were not the most talented yet those teams always gave great effort and showed tons of emotion while doing it.

      • Fab 5 Legends

        I agree with both comments…in that case it goes back to recruiting that type of player…with toughness and competitiveness…not sure if it’s fair to blame Beilein recruiting or senior leadership…these last couple years we have had the same result and explanation…toughness, emotion, having dog in you to play hard nose defense…I think Wagner has that in him but his fouling gets him trouble sometimes…

  • PeteM

    Someone mentioned this below, and I have a lot less basketball knowledge than most folks posting so take this for it’s worth, but has Beilein ever run or considered a 2-3 zone? My understanding is that it can leave open outside shots, but is very hard to penetrate or get offensive rebounds against. Given our struggles defending the 3 maybe a defense that forces teams into a 3 point shooting caontest wouldn’t be so bad.

    • Beilein has definitely used the 2-3 zone in the past, especially when the team is struggling defensively.

      You are correct that 2-3 zones usually give up a number of outside shots and can take away dribble penetration, but it is usually much harder to defensive rebound out of a zone.

    • Chris De Sana

      I would rather live or die by giving up the 3 than allow such easy access to the paint by the opponents point guards. And yes I am the one who asked why not give it a shot????? Because we have seen that our man to man and 1-3-1 both are less than good.