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Michigan’s Defense Becomes Identity Through First Four Games

The Wolverines learn how to defend, and storm through New York with two victories.

NCAA Basketball: 2K Classic-Marquette vs Michigan Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On the second possession of Michigan’s commanding 76-54 victory over SMU on Friday night, Mustang forward Semi Ojeleye took two dribbles to the middle of the paint, rose up and saw his shot swatted by 6’10” pogostick D.J. Wilson. The sophomore forward sprinted down the floor and finished a layup from Zak Irvin, giving the Wolverines a lead they would never relinquish. Michigan’s performance in New York was in some aspects the Michigan of old, but the new wrinkles added by John Beilein and specifically defensive coordinator Billy Donlon give the Wolverines endless possibilities.

In the first game, Michigan played about as perfect a half against Marquette, finishing with 50 points en route to a 79-61 victory. The Wolverines had five players in double figures, and a sixth, Moritz Wagner, had nine points. Michigan only connected on nine 3-pointers, but found excellent production from Mark Donnal in the pick-and-roll and excellent isolation drives to the basket from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

But the highlight play of Michigan’s season up to this point came from the German big man. Wagner shot fake from behind the 3-point line, took one dribble and slammed the ball through the basket, prompting ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla to lose his mind and yell “Porzingis!” and other nonsense for about 15 seconds.

One notable absence from the scoring column against Marquette was Derrick Walton Jr., who struggled with foul trouble in the first half and only compiled four assists and three steals in 22 minutes. Freshman Xavier Simpson was commendable defensibly in his absence, but the point guard was also unable to score in his lone shot attempt through 18 minutes.

On Friday night, however, this changed drastically for Walton Jr. It was clear the senior was hunting his shot early, as he finished with 23 points on 7-12 shooting from behind the arc. None of Michigan’s 31 3-point attempts really felt rushed, and the Wolverines connected on 13 of them, good for 42%.

While D.J. Wilson played the majority of the minutes at power forward, it was sharpshooter Duncan Robinson coming off the bench in the first game who provided a spark for Michigan. The senior only played seven minutes, but had 10 points and was a catalyst continuing the run with three 3-pointers.

Zak Irvin continued his steady scoring by going for 16 in consecutive nights in New York, and he looks much more comfortable on both the catch-and-shoot behind the arc and pullups going toward the basket. We already highlighted Wilson above, but his rebounding and defense gave him a team high 36 minutes. Against athletic teams, Wilson is the perfect bigger “four-man” to guard against some of the larger forwards, especially when Michigan gets matched up against a team like Purdue with Caleb Swanigan. D.J. Wilson can also do things like this:

Overall, Michigan had two extremely convincing wins in New York and deservedly found themselves at #25 in the AP Poll this week. After two solid wins, the schedule only gets a tad easier from here. Michigan travels to South Carolina to take on the Gamecocks Wednesday night (5pm, ESPNU) against a very well coached Frank Martin team.

While South Carolina is undefeated, it took a last-second shot to beat Monmouth at home, and their other three wins are against teams that will more than likely not make the NCAA Tournament. Despite the opposition, the Gamecocks have found a lot scoring across the board to create a balanced attack.

6’5” senior Sindarius Thornwell leads South Carolina with nearly 21 points per game, and will play a bulk of the minutes at one of the guard spots. He’s 10-21 on 3’s to start the year and is absolutely a threat, but he’ll try to use his shooting ability to elevate over some of Michigan’s smaller guards. Duane Notice joins Thornwell in the backcourt, and the senior from Toronto has taken the majority of his shots this season from behind the arc as well.

Chris Silva is the most productive Gamecock inside, as the Gabon native has averaged nearly 11 points and 7 rebounds through the first four games. P.J. Dozier has also averaged double figures in the backcourt, but isn’t much of a factor on the boards. Justin McKie and Hassani Gravett play the majority of the minutes of the bench, with neither player having a huge impact yet.

Michigan should have a tough test playing against a veteran South Carolina team, but return home to play against a battered Mount St. Mary’s team (7pm, ESPN3). The Mountaineers play their first nine games on the road, including road trips to West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas for a team from New York.

They did pick up a win over George Mason, 78-76 in overtime on Friday, but travel to Southern Illinois and then Texas to play UT-Arlington on Wednesday before traveling to play Michigan on Saturday. Their leading scorer this season is Elijah Long, the only Mountaineer currently averaging double figures, and also leads the team with 6 rebounds per game. Chris Wray had 21 points and 10 rebounds against George Mason, and only seven Mountaineers played at least 10 minutes.

With Michigan’s newly anointed ranking in the AP Poll, there will definitely be more eyeballs watching this Michigan team than before. The Wolverines seem ready for the national spotlight, with their core rotation of seven upperclassmen in tact and two freshman playing spot minutes off the bench as well. If Michigan can win at South Carolina and cruise to victory over Mount St. Mary’s, they can continue propelling in the right direction with even bigger tests looming later.