Michigan is a Final Four-caliber team thanks to its best defense under John Beilein
After upsetting Michigan State the Big Ten tournament semifinals, watch out for the Wolverines
Michigan State vs. everybody else: 29-2.
The Spartans were done in by the Wolverines, 75-64, in a Big Ten tournament semifinal on Saturday. For MSU, its hopes of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament are done. For Michigan? The team is a win away from a second straight Big Ten tournament title. The No. 2 Spartans shouldn't feel so bad about their winless bouts vs. John Beilein's squad: No. 15 Michigan is finding ways to win that would lead any logical person to think another Sweet 16 run is in the works here.
A year removed from a magical run to a Big Ten title, and here we go again for the Maize and Blue. Last year it was a Michigan team in need of a couple wins to secure its spot in the NCAA Tournament. This season Michigan's not only safely in the field as a No. 5 seed in CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm's projected bracket posted before the victory, it could be threatening for a No. 3 or 4 seed. The Wolverines are on a tear and looking as good as anyone else in college hoops over the past three weeks.
Michigan's fan base showed up huge on Saturday as well. If there was one school that was going to fill Madison Square Garden no matter the round, no matter the time, Michigan was the automatic. Sparty had a hearty contingent as well -- and it made for a frenzied environment -- but Michigan's presence in the building pulsed through most of the action.
"The crowd was huge," Wolverines senior Duncan Robinson said. "That was a difference in the play. We really felt their support. And it was a difference-maker."
This is why March -- even before teams start dancing -- is so rewarding. These conference tournaments build storylines and flip scripts. Six weeks ago Michigan was 17-6 and just another team in the middle of the Big Ten. Now it's 27-7 and winning games by an average of 13.4 points over nearly the past month. Saturday marked eight straight victories as Michigan climbs the seed-line ladder here en route to a Sunday afternoon championship game appearance against Purdue.
Bottom line: Few teams have looked as good over the past three weeks as Michigan, the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
And still, a reminder that Michigan was taken to overtime by Iowa on Thursday. The fickle, but fun, nature of conference tournaments. Had Iowa pulled off that victory, who knows? Maybe Michigan quietly winds up as a No. 6 seed. Instead, with the Big Ten tournament taking on a lot of attention and being front and center in college basketball this weekend, Michigan has played itself into a front page story.
If you want to know why, a major component is the team's defense. And that's not abiding to the Beilein mantra. The 65-year-old has built a roster with a few good one-on-one defenders and sum of players who've turned Michigan's reputation almost inside out. This Michigan team is not like the ones we've seen thrive before. The past five times the Wolverines have made the NCAA Tournament, they've reliably had a top-30 offense. Three of those times, their offense was top-four at KenPom.com in offensive efficiency, including the top-rated team of 2013 that lost in the national title game to Louisville.
But defensively? Those five teams' average KenPom ranking: a not-so-nice 69th.
Michigan now ranks sixth in defensive efficiency and a good-not-great 35th on offense. And this isn't a 1-3-1 zone that's vexing offenses, which was part of how Beielin found success at West Virginia that ultimately landed him this Michigan job 11 years ago. Instead, it's ball-screen defense -- and that principle is paying off in ways that might even be a bit lucky. Michigan State, the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, missed a bevy of open 3-point attempts on Saturday; the Spartans shooting 7-of-25 from 3-point range was a deciding factor.
We seldom see programs of Michigan's caliber with coaches of Beilein's stature have volatile changes in offensive and defensive behavior. It's weird to see Michigan like this, but it's also intriguing because it brings out the possibility that Beilein's found a way to twist how we view him and his program. The idea that Michigan could be an elite team on defense and a hit-or-miss squad on offense is alien to fans of that program who've come to expect high-level offense, a system that takes three- and four-star recruits and boosts them into pro prospects.
"I think they're a little tougher, personally," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "I think (Charles) Matthews is a great athlete that prides himself on guarding. And (Zavier) Simpson 100 percent prides himself on his defense. ... So I think his team is a better defensive team. Some of it is players and I don't know if some of it is coaching staff and what they did."
Wolverines opponents have been held to 66 or fewer points in 21 of their 34 games this season. This personality change is only going to frighten opposing coaching staffs all the more, because they already know how meticulous they need to be when prepping for Beilein's offense. Now Michigan's playing well, defending on the interior -- and not even turning the ball over. The team is third-best in turnover percentage.
Michigan's not going to be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but it's once again hitting a groove in the most important month of the year. With NBA prospects (Matthews and Moritz Wagner) in addition to a lot of age, the Wolverines look like they'll be one of the toughest beats when the NCAA Tournament gets going.
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