Eight games into the new year and it’s readily apparent that the Michigan Wolverines aren’t just good, they’re playing at a level matched by few across the country. Monday’s new AP Top 25 saw the Wolverines rise to Number 5, sitting behind only Gonzaga, Duke, Kansas and Virginia. While the last two games have showcased Michigan’s peak offensive capabilities, John Beilein is preaching every day in practice that defense is what will get the Wolverines through thick and thin.
“It’s something we are gonna do no matter what the score is,” Beilein said after his team’s 76-57 win over Purdue on Saturday. “They are learning that sometimes you are not gonna make a foul shot. You are gonna turn it over; you have a tough ref’s call. Your defense can be the one constant, and as long as we keep embracing that we can keep having success there.”
Michigan’s smothering defense is what allowed Purdue to draw no closer than 12 points in the second half on Saturday while Michigan endured a nine-minute scoreless streak from the floor. For posterity, the 7th ranked team in the country went 9 minutes with only five points in a Big Ten game and never surrendered its double-digit lead.
“There is no secret to defense. It is just more of a pride issue.” Zavier Simpson told reporters Friday. “Defense isn’t a science; I don’t think about all the things, this guy likes to go left, this guy likes to go right, it’s just more mental, there is no secret weapon to defense.”
Simpson’s approach has paid dividends for Michigan since turning into a defensive juggernaut midway through last season as the Wolverines made it all the way to the National Championship game. Simpson and Charles Matthews have been leading the line, Beilein referred to them as two of the most tenacious defenders he has ever coached before the Purdue game, and Matthews showcased that Saturday when he went up for a block on Boilermakers center Matt Haarms, who is 9 inches taller than the 6’6 Matthews. Matthews play got whistled for a shooting foul, but Beilein and the rest of the Wolverines insist the block was clean.
“Charles contests the shot, that just shows how tough we are,” said Jordan Poole of his teammate’s block attempt. “Anybody could’ve went up there, but to contest a 7’3 guy like that, shows the world we are gonna stick our nose in, take charges.” Poole took an impressive charge of his own in the second half against Purdue, a play that wowed many, including his coaches and teammates. His most impressive defensive play came later in the second half, when he made a smart defensive rotation to contest what should have been a wide-open dunk by Purdue forward Evan Boudreaux. “Jordan Poole would’ve run right out of there last year but he ran in there and we told the team it was gonna be in the jump ball hall of fame, how he went up perfectly with his palms in the air.” said Beilein of his sophomore guard’s standout play.
Poole also agreed with the sentiment that Simpson echoed the day before the Purdue game about the simplicity of the Wolverines defensive approach every trip down the court. “At the end of the day it’s really about you and the man in front of you. You gotta stop him before he tries to get a bucket on you, also being able to have communication and it’s just toughness.” Poole said after the Purdue game. “That’s really all it is too and I think the five we have out there with Jon Isaiah Iggy Charles and X and the guys we have on the bench we are extremely prideful of how we play defense.” Poole’s also told reporters his play on Boudreaux made Michigan assistant Luke Yaklich so proud the assistant coach insisted a photo of Poole’s jump ball will need to be hung up at the team facility.
Having already shut down UNC’s offensive tempo machine, and slowed down one of the best players in the country in Carsen Edwards, the Wolverines can see how their defense travels in conference play as Michigan takes on Northwestern Tuesday night in Evanston. Michigan is winless in three games on the road against Northwestern, with last year’s loss coming at Allstate Arena while Welsh-Ryan Arena was undergoing renovation. The last time Michigan started 9-0 was 2012-13, which was also the last season the Wolverines beat the Wildcats on the road. So far, the road hasn’t been too troubling for Michigan in a trip to Villanova and two games at Mohegan Sun in the Air Force Reserve Tip-Off Tournament. Beilein remains his humble self in the face of his team’s success and is still seeking ways to improve after finishing the first quarter of the season undefeated.
“We have to win in the face of adversity, we have to win in the face of foul trouble. We have to win in the face of people who just can’t make a shot and still find ways to win before we find out if we’re really good” replied the coach when asked about what his team needs to keep working at.
The Wolverines and Wildcats tip off at 9 PM EST Tuesday night, and the game will be televised by the Big Ten Network. The Wolverines are looking to start Big Ten play 2-0 for the first time since the 2015-16 season.