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Michigan and Its Stifling Defense Are Here to Stay

Michigan's dominant win over North Carolina showcased the Wolverines' newfound level of flexibility on both ends of the ball.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — At some point, no more statements need be made. No. 7 Michigan more or less ended No. 11 North Carolina in 24 minutes of clock time Wednesday night, staunch defensive play and timely shooting putting a double-digit stranglehold on one of the top offensive teams anywhere. There has been no hangover from falling in last season’s title game, no drop-off after the departure of a talismanic scorer, and there should be no more questions about the Wolverines’ place among the nation’s elite teams. The margin was 84–67. It was not for show.

To not show up against this Michigan team is to flirt with rock bottom. Villanova found out the hard way two weeks ago, taking a beating on a night it re-dedicated a brand-new arena and leading a downcast Jay Wright to suggest that John Beilein might be coaching his best group ever. Roy Williams didn’t fare much better. He pulled all five of his starters at the 15:33 mark Wednesday following a 12–4 Michigan ambush of three-pointers that broke the second-half wide open and dropped the Tar Heels behind by 12. Like clockwork, Carolina’s new group (composed of less-experienced players) struggled to inbound the ball on the following play and turned it over. It was that kind of night, leading Williams to declare aghast postgame that this was “the most frustrated [he’d] ever been” in his 31 years as a head coach.

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“That’s one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever had—that our teams have ever had,” Beilein responded when prompted after the game. The Wolverines have earned their praise in spades through their first seven victories. At face value, this matchup was a narrative layup: UNC boasted the fourth-most efficient offense in the country and Michigan the top defense coming into the night, according to Only one of those statistics held fast, pointing to the hosts’ newfound level of flexibility on both ends of the ball. The departure of program cornerstone Moe Wagner to the NBA led heavily to a preseason perception that the Wolverines were due for growing pains. Their demise was much exaggerated.

Charles Matthews—who has enjoyed a personal rebirth of sorts to open his redshirt junior season—summed Michigan’s defensive boom up neatly after the game. “Y’all see Jon Teske out there? That should say a lot,” Matthews said. Teske, Michigan’s 7’1” anchor, blocked five shots, finished as a plus-24 on the night, and enabled the Wolverines to stay big up front and foil Carolina’s attempts to push the pace. “We love Moe,” Matthews elaborated, “but Moe [wasn’t] blocking shots and making a difference at the rim like that.”

“We can do a lot of different things [defensively],” added sophomore Jordan Poole. “We didn’t have to today.” Teske’s verticality, the fiery tone set by Matthews and point guard Zavier Simpson and an array of athletes who can switch ball screens have forged what has been a mostly-impenetrable curtain around the interior. Cam Johnson, the Heels’ leading scorer, couldn’t muster a bucket until there were just seven minutes left in second half. UNC shot just 39% from the floor, and Michigan created 18 points off of 10 turnovers. “As [assistant coach] Luke Yaklich says, ‘We’re going to contest shots with every fiber of our being,” said Beilein, pausing for emphasis. “He actually says that.”

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That Michigan can count on its experience and effort level every night makes gameplanning that much easier. It bottled up Villanova on the road by switching everything, blitzing the ball and forcing Eric Paschall and Phil Booth into isolated shots. It has taken away its opponents’ offensive fulcrum, forced them out of their comfort zone, and gone from there. “We weren’t talking much about [Carolina’s] other guys…we talked about [stopping] Luke Maye for two straight days,” Beilein explained. Maye, considered a player of the year candidate coming into his senior year, managed 15 rebounds, but just 11 points. There was not much help to be found.

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Beilein cited the growing connectivity of his starting five when explaining what makes his team tick. When the Wolverines get significant contributions from their three most talented players, they won’t lose many. Matthews scored 21, freshman Ignas Brazdeikis a career-high 24, and 15 of Poole’s 18 came as Michigan pulled away in the second half. All three broke out at once, while the team left 12 missed free throws on the table.

“We got a lot of perimeter scorers this year, guys who can go get a bucket,” Poole said, and it stands to reason that with a wealth of options, they might be more dangerous than the team that rolled through last year’s Big Ten tournament and to the national title game.

Setting the platitudes aside, this is the last chance to buy Michigan stock as the Wolverines careen into their first Big Ten duel with a ranked Purdue team on Saturday. “It is November 28th,” Beilein twice noted after the game. He pounded the lectern with his right hand to punctuate his syllables. “It is a long season, and we are playing really good November basketball.” Cautious optimism was to be expected, but Beilein left room to dream. “Who knows what can happen with this team?”

Beilein was right—it’s very early, but the recipe is working, and faster than usual. On Wednesday, it almost felt like enough to draw conclusions.