ATLANTA — Michigan had all season to improve its defense, yet it still looked hopeless as recently as the Big Ten tournament.
The Wolverines gave up 51 points in the second half of a loss to Wisconsin — not exactly a harbinger of good things to come with the NCAA tournament on deck.
“Even though it didn’t look it to all of you — or to me sometimes, this year — we have worked on defense like crazy,” coach John Beilein said this week.
Michigan has now won four straight to reach the Final Four and although the Wolverines may not have totally solved their defensive problems, they have been a bit stingier of late. Michigan was fortunate to beat Kansas on a night the Wolverines didn’t play well on defense, but that was the only NCAA tournament game they’ve come close to losing.
In victories over Florida, Virginia Commonwealth and South Dakota State, Michigan showed it can indeed stop quality opposition from scoring.
“I think a lot of that just goes to our attention to detail, and us being prepared going into the game,” star point guard Trey Burke said. “We know it’s all or nothing now. You lose, you go home, your season’s over with.”
Michigan began the season 20-1, and from the very start, the Wolverines looked poised beyond their years on offense. Burke is a sophomore and guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is a junior, but Michigan also relies on freshmen Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary.
There might not be a team in the country with better flow and rhythm on offense, but opponents have been pretty comfortable, too. The Wolverines went through long stretches of passive play on defense, allowing 81 points in a loss at Indiana and 75 in a loss at Michigan State. The low point may have been an 84-78 loss at Penn State in late February.
Once ranked No. 1 in the country, the team fell all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament after giving up that 51-point half in a loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament last month.
Beilein has become known for his 1-3-1 zone over the years, but Michigan hasn’t played much of it this season. The coach indicated a few weeks ago he thought the zone wasn’t very effective with this team.
There were some adjustments the Wolverines could make — wiry freshman Caris LeVert gives Michigan a boost with his athleticism — but it seemed like only a matter of time before an opponent had a big day offensively and ended the season for Beilein’s team.
It hasn’t happened yet.
Michigan’s first NCAA tournament game was against South Dakota State and high-scoring guard Nate Wolters. The Wolverines held Wolters to 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting in a 71-56 win. In the next round, Michigan routed VCU 78-53. The Rams weren’t able to force enough turnovers with their press, so they had to score in their halfcourt offense and couldn’t do it consistently.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, are even more dangerous offensively when they’re defending well — because defensive stops can create chances for Burke, Hardaway and Robinson to get out in transition.
“With a young team, they do understand fast break,” Beilein said. “We can play in space on a fast break. Well, we fast break if we play defense.”
Michigan struggled for most of the game against Kansas, allowing 60 points in the paint in that regional semifinal, but Burke led a late surge and the Wolverines pulled out an improbable 87-85 win in overtime. Was that a significant regression or a one-game blip? Michigan responded by shutting down Florida in a 79-59 victory. The Gators were held under 60 points for only the fourth time all season.
With the Final Four approaching and a semifinal matchup against Syracuse on the horizon, Michigan’s defense is still an unknown commodity — but that’s actually an improvement for what seemed like a clear liability less than a month ago. The Wolverines haven’t had an intimidating shot blocker inside, but McGary — a 6-foot-10 freshman — is at least giving opponents a bit to think about around the basket now.
Burke, meanwhile, can pick his spots. His steal and dunk in the final minute helped Michigan to a win over Michigan State last month, and he made a similar play toward the end of the first half against Florida.
Hardaway and Robinson can be overpowered down low, but they have enough quickness to contest outside shots.
This young Michigan team needed almost no time to become an efficient group offensively. Now the defense may be catching up — just in time.
“We’ve just been doing a good job in practice of making sure that when you’re guarding your man, just try to make sure they don’t get in the house, which is the paint,” Hardaway said. “Every time you give Coach Beilein a week to prepare for a team, the outcome is probably a win, but we know that Syracuse is a great team. They’ve got a week to prepare for us as well, so we’ve got to come in there with the same type of intensity.”