Michigan’s defensive progress stands out in ugly win

For much of this season, defense hasn’t been the Michigan men’s basketball team’s strong suit.

The Wolverines began the season ranked No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, but that projected success never materialized. Early-season defensive woes like slow rotations, a lack of boxing out and an inability to guard one-on-one hampered Michigan as it unraveled in multiple non-conference games.

During the first half of Tuesday’s trip to Penn State, it appeared things were careening towards a similar fate at the defensive end. The Wolverines allowed 18 points in the paint and four 3-pointers as the Nittany Lions shot 57.7% from the field before the break. Michigan struggled to keep Penn State’s guards out of the paint, and as a result, the Wolverines found themselves staring up at a double-digit deficit with only a few minutes left in the half.

“The difference was, in the first half, we allowed their shooters to get open looks,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “Too many paint touches.”

With the Wolverines trailing big, the third-year coach’s frustrations shone through. So he took things into his own hands, putting on a demonstration during a timeout that ultimately marked the turning point in Michigan’s ugly 58-57 victory.

“I dove on the floor in a timeout for a loose ball just to show one of our players that every possession matters and we had to win in the muscle areas,” Howard said. “Anytime there’s a loose ball on the floor, we’ve got to be the first to hit the floor. After that timeout, we got stop after stop after stop. And we also scored after those stops, and then you look up at halftime, we’re tied (at) 34. But we did it with defense, because defensively, in the first 10 minutes in the ballgame, they didn’t feel us.”

Still, at halftime, Howard was displeased with his team’s overall body of defensive work. In the locker room, he delivered sharp criticism. And it resonated.

“It’s too easy. Everything they’re getting is too easy,” Howard recalled telling his team. “We’ve got to make them work for every bucket, they don’t feel us. We’ve got to cut off the paint touches.”

In the second half, that’s exactly what the Wolverines did. Even though they could barely buy a bucket at the offensive end, their defense swung the pendulum in their favor. Michigan held Penn State to just 24% shooting in the second half, including a dismal 4-for-19 mark inside the 3-point arc.

The same defense that struggled to get a stop in the early stages of the game came through in the clutch moments of the second half. Individual stops snowballed into multi-minute scoring droughts, and the Wolverines avoided any sort of early-half lull. The Nittany Lions recorded just one field goal in the first seven minutes of the second half, allowing Michigan to avoid playing from behind as it did in the first half.

“We got hand-ball contests,” Howard said. “We did a really good job of keeping our man in front when they did touch the paint. We limited them to one-shot opportunities because our guys did a really good job boxing out. But our activity and energy and communication was very solid in the second half.”

Added DeVante’ Jones: “Today, it was key for us stepping up on defense. A lot of guys came in and contributed on the defensive side, so that was the main thing for us. When the shots (are) not falling, then you’ve got to rely on your defense. And that was big for us today.”

Tuesday served as a glimpse into what the Wolverines can be on the defensive end. With an elite on-ball defender like Eli Brooks and 7-foot-1 rim protector like Hunter Dickinson, sustaining success on defense for the first time all year is still possible — even in February.

And if Michigan can manage that, it’d go a long way in helping the Wolverines in their uphill battle to make the NCAA Tournament.

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