Michigan Basketball: Is Defense the Key to Wolverines' 2013-14 Success?

C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterSeptember 11, 2013

Mitch McGary (No. 4) was key to Michigan's improved defense during the NCAA tournament last season.
Mitch McGary (No. 4) was key to Michigan's improved defense during the NCAA tournament last season.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Michigan basketball last year was a lot like what the NCAA wants college basketball to be.

The Wolverines were the most efficient offense in the country—according to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted measure—and defensively they didn't resort to the foul-and-bump-so-often-the-officials-cannot-call-every-one strategy that has become commonplace in the college game. 

Michigan's defense led the NCAA in free-throw rate—meaning Michigan's opponents shot the lowest percentage of free throws compared to field-goal attempts. Michigan did not force many turnovers—ranking 243rd in turnover percentage—and did not block many shots—ranking 255th in block rate. 

So if you watched a Michigan game, chances are you were going to hear few whistles and see a lot of shots attempted and points scored. Real basketball! 

This could be construed, by the "defense wins championships" crowd, as the Wolverines simply didn't give great effort on the defensive end. It's hard to foul when you're not gambling or trying to block a lot of shots.

And there's some merit to that. Coach John Beilein has not rebuilt the Michigan program with defense. He has done it with skilled players and beautiful offense. 

But if you believe that offense is the only reason Michigan got to the national championship game last season, you would be mistaken. 

On the way to the title game, Michigan held South Dakota State to its third-lowest total of points per possession all season, VCU to its second-lowest, Florida to its worst and Syracuse to its eighth-worst output. Only Kansas had what can be viewed as a good offensive game against the Wolverines until Louisville lit them up. 

This is important—the fact that Michigan is capable of playing stingy D—because it could be needed this upcoming season. Trey Burke is gone. Beilein's team is built around a physically imposing big man, Mitch McGary. 

Is it conceivable that Michigan, a John-Beilein-coached team, needs to be a great defensively to be a great team again? 


Behold the Possibility of a Great Michigan D

It's no coincidence that some of Michigan's best defensive performances came in the NCAA tournament with McGary as the starting center and playing big minutes. 

McGary gave the Wolverines a rim protector and was also really good at creating turnovers. He had 12 steals in the tournament. 

It would make sense, particularly offensively, for Beilein to play a similar lineup to the one he used in the tournament that had McGary at the 5 and Glenn Robinson III at the 4.

Michigan's best offensive lineup, on paper, would have freshmen Derrick Walton and Nik Irvin along with sophomores Nik Stauskas, Robinson and McGary, forcing Robinson to power forward. 

The issue with that is that Robinson wants to play the 3 this year, which is one of the reasons he came back to school. 

Beilein is prepared. On a podcast with ESPN.com's Seth Greenberg and Andy Katz, Beilein said that McGary has worked a lot this offseason at guarding stretch-4s. 

The big thing will be for him to guard a perimeter 4. ...We did this survey at the end of the year. Of the 26 teams we played, 16 of those teams played with a skilled 4, 10 played with a traditional block-type of 4, a non-shooting 4. So he’s going to guard more of those guys on the perimeter. To be able to do that is very hard when you’re chasing around a Jon Shurna (former Northwestern power forward) or a Christian Watford (former Indiana power forward) was like that. Those guys, you’ve got to be able to do that. 

He can do it, because he is athletic enough to do it. But that mind-set is different after you miss a shot and now you have to match out rather than match up. That's a whole different mind-set for guys. So that will be one of the biggest things he has had to work on in the postseason and now the preseason.

It's debatable whether Robinson will truly see more minutes at the 3 than the 4. I'm skeptical, especially when Michigan goes up against what Beilein called the perimeter 4s. 

But when Michigan goes against more traditional power forwards, it does make sense to go big. Look no further than the national championship for proof. Chane Behanan was a bad cross match for Robinson. Behanan had 15 points and seven offensive rebounds.

It may have made sense to play Jordan Morgan more minutes in that game next to McGary, but then Beilein would have lost some of his offensive firepower. 

That's what makes freshman big man Mark Donnal one of the more important players in Michigan's rotation this year. Donnal is more of a scoring big man than Morgan and could give the Wolverines a traditional look with five scorers still on the floor. 

It's a mixing and matching game that Beilein will have to play with early in the year. Because no matter how great the coach is with X's and O's, it's hard to imagine Michigan's offense can be as good as it was now that Burke is gone. 

Can Michigan win a national title with just a good, but not great defense? Last year Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency metric ranked Michigan 39th. No national championship team since he started tracking such numbers has ranked below 19th. 

Of course, Michigan almost got it done and Beilein's March defense was a different animal than the November-February one. 

One last thing to note that will benefit Michigan is the NCAA's attempt this year to have its officials call the game the way it was meant to be called. Less physical play will be allowed. In that way, Michigan has a leg up on the competition because Beilein's team already knows how to play D without fouling. 

Combine that with McGary playing starter minutes for an entire season and a roster with more defensive flexibility, and Beilein could have a D good enough to be in the top 20.