INDIANAPOLIS -- As exhilarating a finish as it was in Michigan’s comeback, last second 64-63 win over Illinois Friday, the Wolverines head into Saturday of the Big Ten tournament looking for answers defensively.
After giving up 80-points at home to Indiana to end the regular season, Michigan again struggled with their on the ball defense, allowing Illinois entry into the paint far too easily and consistently.
As a result, Coach John Beilein was forced to change-up looks defensively, going back to the 1-3-1 zone, as he did against the Hoosiers to attempt to quell their offensive prowess, also proving effective in spurts against the Illini.
But if Michigan wants to take their Big Ten regular season championship and turn it into something more in March, the defensive numbers will have to improve.
“You know, I think we’re coming along pretty well,” Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas said. “I think we still have some strides to make defensively. I think that’s where we’re really going to be at our best once we start locking down defensively.
“But I think offensively we’ve been doing a pretty good job so far. Guys are getting better at communicating on defense, getting in the gaps and all that kind of stuff. We’re confident in our abilities, and, I think, going forward we’re only going to keep getting better.”
If senior center Jordan Morgan has his way, things will get better. On the bench in some foul trouble in the second half Friday, Illinois took advantage without Michigan’s defensive coordinator on the floor.
Hitting a game winning lay-up in the closing seconds is one thing, but Morgan, who has been through the trial and tribulation that comes with the postseason, defense sets the tone and lays the path to live another day.
“I think we’ve got to do a better job of knowing personnel and getting better at closeouts,” Morgan said.
Morgan adding, “I just do what I can as a leader, as a senior, just doing my best to keep everybody engaged.”
An encouraging moment for Michigan came in the final minute of regulation. Trailing 63-62, in desperate need of a stop to give themselves a chance, the Wolverines rallied playing fantastic team defense for 35 seconds, forcing a double team and a shot clock violation.
The next offensive possession, and final one of the game for Michigan, Morgan scored the game winner.
Pitted against Ohio State Saturday in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, Michigan hopes that defensive chemistry translates over.
Either way, with the Buckeyes firmly needing another victory to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive, Michigan understands the situation.
“We’ve gone through that all year long,” Beilein said. “As we rose in the Big Ten, people are coming after you and you have to respond. The only difference is you don’t have your home crowd yelling for you.
“You really got to settle down and it’s been a theme all year, this is a really young team and right now we’re giving up way too many easy baskets and, we’ve just got to keep working on it.”