Michigan’s offense continues to hum, now seventh nationally in offensive efficiency after an 85-66 blowout win over Northwestern Sunday. It’s the defense, though, that had head coach Juwan Howard excited about his group after the Wolverines improved to 9-0, 4-0 in Big Ten play.
The Wildcats challenged U-M with their small ball lineup, and former Michigan recruit Pete Nance had some early success. Once they got settled, though, the Wolverines smothered the Northwestern offense. The Wildcats made only five triples, and barely got a good look.
Guard Boo Buie, who scored 30 points against Michigan State a few weeks back, was held scoreless. He only took two triples, making neither.
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“This was an inspiring game to watch on how we guarded the three-point line because I’m thinking back to the game versus Maryland (an 84-73 Michigan win), particularly the first half — yes, Maryland made some tough shots and shots that were well-contested,” head coach Juwan Howard said. “But, coaches, like we always do, we always nitpick. We’re always looking for how we can get better, never pleased.
“Yes, we did win the game at Maryland, but I wasn’t happy at all about how we guarded the three-point line as of late. Today, we worked to get to their shooters. As you saw, they have a roster full of excellent three-point shooting; they have an excellent three-point shooting team. Our job was to make sure that we did not lose them, keep our head on a swivel, contest without fouling, and — most importantly — have better activity on and off the ball.”
That they did, led by the usuals. Senior Eli Brooks (14 points, five assists, five rebounds) made four of five three-pointers and added another highlight reel dunk, but his defense was once again key in a win.
Sophomore Franz Wagner has started to heat up offensively (14 points, five assists), but his 10 rebounds, five blocked shots, two steals and smothering defense on Nance were indicative of what he’s brought all year, even when his shot hasn’t been falling.
“Our defense, man — those blocks on their shooters, those blocks on protecting the basket. It was just inspiring,” Howard said. “His level of being locked in, his attention to detail, locked in on the scouting report, studying the opponent, knowing their tendencies … the guy’s an architect and I’m just happy that we have on our side.”
It was Howard’s decision to put Wagner on Nance, and it paid off. Senior Chaundee Brown (14 points in 16 minutes) marveled at Wagner’s length in the postgame, shaking his head recalling his first encounters with the sophomore on the court. Nance found out first hand Sunday just how tough it was. He finished with only two points after his early eight and never had room to move.
Howard’s film study led to a defensive game plan that couldn’t have worked much better.
“My assistants probably thought I was crazy in the coaches’ meeting … yesterday morning,” Howard said. “I said, ‘Nance is the triggerman. Nance is the guy who, not only does he have high energy, super talented, skillful guy that can score on the outside and inside, very active on the offensive and defensive glass, but we’ve got to match his energy. We have to match his energy with a guy that we can trust — especially in ball screen coverages.’
“Nance is also a big triggerman in ball screen where he’s either setting the screens or slipping, and we needed a guy who had the length, is also smart and is going to do it and be very detailed. Franz is that guy.”
The offense, with its inside-out approach centered around 7-2 freshman Hunter Dickinson (19 points, three rebounds) will be tough for anyone to slow. When Northwestern threw some zone at them, the Wolverines responded with three straight triples that blew the game open in the first half. When they came out of it, Dickinson went to work inside and his teammates found him on the regular.
Unlike some other high scoring Big Ten teams, though, U-M is proving it can stop people, too. That makes the ceiling higher than some have given credit … but probably not for much longer. Look for a rise in the rankings sooner than later.
“You know what? I don’t care about any of that attention or begging for the credit or the national credit,” Howard said. “I’m just looking for one game at a time and our next opponent … that’s where my focus is going to be; how we can get better, how we can prepare for our next opponent.
“I’ll let the AP polls and the coaches’ polls do what they do. That’s not our focus. Our main goal is to be the No. 1 team standing at the end, and that’s what we’re working towards.”
With every game, that goal looks more and more realistic.