When dissecting the nation’s No. 1 team, you’d be hard-pressed to find any glaring issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Wolverines are infallible.
As Ohio State proved in the Wolverines’ lone loss of the season on Jan. 13 in Columbus, Michigan isn’t a flawless squad. It has depth, speed, chemistry and athleticism, but it also has a giant target on its back as the country’s top team.
As coach John Beilein told UMHoops.com following last Sunday’s win over Illinois, “Here’s where it is guys. It’s January 27th and not one of you in here can remember who was No. 1 last January 27th. To our team, that doesn’t make a big difference.”
Unfortunately for Beilein and the Wolverines, to every upcoming opponent, that lofty ranking means a chance at knocking off the king—something that Indiana, Saturday’s opponent, is extremely familiar with after last season’s upset of then-No. 1 Kentucky.
Forget about the rankings and the ramifications. Just how do you beat Michigan?
Defend the Perimeter
Michigan relies heavily on the three-point shot, which can either bury an opposing team or keep the game close if the Wolverines are off their mark. The Buckeyes were fortuitous in that Michigan shot just 6-of-20 from the three-point line, over 10 percent lower than its season average, according to ESPN.
With no legitimate low-post threat, Michigan spreads the floor as widely as possible and lets Trey Burke go to work on his defender, often drawing double-teams, which frees up outside shooters.
The key is sticking to your man.
If, for example, a help-side defender left Nik Stauskas open in the corner to try and help with a driving Burke, the generous guard would have no qualms about dishing to the side where Stauskas thrives. The same goes for defending Tim Hardaway Jr.
It should come as no surprise that Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, widely thought of as the best on-ball defender in the Big Ten, played a huge role in stopping Burke. Craft was able to limit Burke by himself, which in turn allowed all of the other Buckeye defenders to stick with Michigan’s dangerous shooters.
The loss was the only game this year where Burke finished with an equal number of turnovers as he did assists (four), per ESPN.
Switch on Screens
Coaches don’t like to do this because it creates mismatches, but with how little room most of the Michigan players need to get off a shot, it’s the best way to defend the perimeter.
Dozens of times throughout a game, one of Michigan’s big men will be trailing the ball as Burke brings it up the court, set a high screen above the arc and then the Wolverines will go from there. Burke has hit 36 three-pointers this season, the 11th-most in the Big Ten, and he has no problem stepping back if a defender goes underneath a screen.
Following Michigan’s win over Illinois that saw the Wolverines shoot 5-of-15 from beyond the arc, Beilein told UMHoops.com, “[Illinois] was switching every ball screen. We were anticipating that but only practiced it for about 15 minutes. …That took us some time to adjust to that because Trey was shooting over a long guy.”
There’s reason enough to, at least, switch on some screens.
Watch as Jordan Morgan sets a high screen for Burke, who rolls right while his defender goes underneath the screen. Morgan's defender fails to step up, leaving Burke wide open for an easy look.
Feed the Ball into the Paint
If Michigan has any weakness whatsoever, it’s in the post. Jordan Morgan, 6’8’’, is the Wolverines’ tallest starter, and although he’s not ineffective, he’s certainly not as dominant or athletic as Michigan’s other players.
A sprained right ankle has hampered Morgan recently, so his health is certainly an issue, but freshman Mitch McGary and sophomore Jon Horford filled in admirably in the win over Northwestern on Wednesday night.
Neither Morgan nor McGary average more than 20 minutes a game, and if one were to get into foul trouble—particularly the freshman—Michigan’s interior depth could get tested quite quickly.
McGary, although talented, is still trying to figure out the nuances of how to play post defense. He’s been called for four fouls six times this season, despite not playing more than 21 minutes in any one game, according to ESPN.
Slow the Game Down
Seeing as how Michigan’s athletes are better than those of nearly every other Big Ten team, you don’t want to get into a track meet with the Wolverines. They will run you off the court like they’ve done to West Virginia, Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa and Illinois.
Contrary to popular belief, though, Michigan isn’t great at turning teams over. One would think they might be due to the amount of highlight-reel transition dunks they get, but the Wolverines are actually ninth in the Big Ten with just 5.6 steals per game, per BigTen.org.
Where they do excel, however, is at limiting second-chance opportunities. Michigan’s defensive rebounding percentage is 13th in the country, according to KenPom.com, meaning that teams should work the shot clock and share the ball as much as possible before attempting their shot.
Don't expect the Wolverines to give in if teams successfully execute these four keys. A lot has to happen to take down the No. 1 team in the nation, but keep in mind that it's already happened four times this season.