SAN ANTONIO – If there's one explanation for how Michigan has turned the mediocre defensive team from a season ago into one of the finest defenses in college basketball, it is this: John Beilein's team allowed opponents to shoot fewer 3-pointers than all but a handful of teams in the sport this season.
This is not a coincidence.
"Coach Beilein hates 3s," senior guard Jaaron Simmons said Sunday, a day before Michigan faces Villanova in the national title game. "He hates when other teams make 3s."
This has been drilled into the heads of the Wolverines since this team's first practice in fall. They are told to not give up 3-pointers. They are told to stay high in the gaps. Sure, you should sprint out to the 3-point line to contest any time an opponent has an open 3-pointer. But more important is not allowing an opponent to get that open 3-pointer in the first place: Keep your man in front of you, don't allow your man to make an easy pass to another 3-point shooter, execute your individual defensive role in order to make your team's defense shine.
"If someone makes a 3 in practice and it's highly contested, it's kind of OK, but if you give up a 3 and it's lightly contested, you're going to get some heat for it," Simmons said. "It depends on how many times you do it. You might have to run to the top of the Crisler Center."
This is not a team whose defense is built around a single elite defender, like Texas was centered around the shot-blocking brilliance of Mohamed Bamba or like West Virginia was dependent on the non-stop intensity of Jevon Carter. This is team defense in the truest sense of the phrase. It has recorded the nation's third-best defensive efficiency by allowing less than 30 percent of opponents' shots to be 3-pointers, ranking fifth in the country.
The Michigan philosophy reflects the perfect defensive answer to today's 3-point heavy basketball. Teams prefer to shoot high-percentage shots at the rim or the long-distance shots that are worth an extra point. Analytics types say the worst shots in basketball are long, contested 2-pointers. So Michigan tries to force teams into taking those shots. "A lot of people don't work on taking tough 2s or making tough 2s," Michigan senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. "That's what we try to make offenses do."
Said Michigan sophomore Charles Matthews: "The mid-range game is a lost art in basketball."
This philosophy is of vital importance on Monday night, one game after an on-fire Villanova obliterated a Final Four record with 18 made 3-pointers. The national title game will be one team's greatest strength against another team's greatest strength. A big reason for Villanova being one of the most efficient collegiate offenses we've ever seen has been 3-point shooting. As a team, Villanova shoots 40.1 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 11th in college basketball; of the teams that shoot a better percentage from beyond the arc than Villanova, none of those teams shoot nearly the volume of 3-pointers that Villanova does. (Close to 50 percent of Villanova's attempted shots come from 3-point land, ranking 12th in the nation.)
"This is the Golden State Warriors here," Beilein said. "This is a Draymond Green type of thing where your guys can shoot it, they can pass it, they can do everything. It's like we like to play as well, and it's a great concept. It's one I'm very familiar with. It doesn't mean we can stop it."
Michigan couldn't stop something similar in January, when the Wolverines had two chances at it. Two times that month, Michigan played Purdue, which was the nation's second-most efficient offense this season, and was similarly built on 3-point shooting. (Purdue ranked second in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage.) Two times that month, Michigan lost close ones. The first game, Purdue made 12 of its 21 3-pointers; the second game, Purdue made 11 of its 20 3-pointers.
But when those teams met again in the Big Ten Tournament title game, as Michigan was becoming the hottest team in the country, the Wolverines flipped the script. Michigan held Purdue to only 17 3-point attempts, and Purdue never got rolling from 3-point range, only making four shots from beyond the arc and Michigan won 75-66.
In the NCAA Tournament, here are the 3-point shooting stats of Michigan's first five opponents:
- vs. Montana: 3 of 15
- vs. Houston: 7 of 18
- vs. Texas A&M: 3 of 15
- vs. Florida State: 4 of 17
- vs. Loyola-Chicago: 1 of 10
"Going back to our first game against Purdue – we made some big-time mistakes in that game," Michigan senior Duncan Robinson said. "That was a big film session for us, because we learned we can't play that way going forward. It's intensity and energy first and foremost. It's about flying around and making it tough on the opponent."
Making 3-point shooting tough on Villanova is Michigan's No. 1 task on Monday night. If Villanova can get the number of open looks that the Wildcats got against Kansas on Saturday night – a shocking number of Villanova's 40 3-point attempts were wide open, especially in the first half – then Michigan is dead in the water.
But there's a devil's bargain in defending this Villanova juggernaut. While so much of the Wildcats' offensive relies on 3-point shooting, having five effective 3-point shooters on the floor at all times also open up the rest of the court for Villanova's offense. Villanova's offense might thrive off 3-pointers, but the team also ranks third in the nation in shooting percentage from inside the arc.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't.