Less than five minutes into the second half, with a 12-point lead, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s defense faced a Test. With the Wolverines running in circles after Jackson State’s ball movement, it seemed like they were failing that test. As Michigan looked lost, Tigers guard Ken Evans drove into the paint and positioned for an easy layup. But junior center Hunter Dickinson had other plans.
As the ball left Evans’ hand, Dickinson rose and slapped the ball away from the basket to break the scurrying Wolverines. It was Dickinson’s fourth block of the game and Michigan’s third half. In a contest in which the Wolverines’ defense struggled, their saving grace came from protecting the rim.
“We have guys who are very competitive and they take the one-on-one challenge,” said Michigan coach Juwan Howard on Wednesday. “And they also do a very good job when it comes to throwing shots and that’s pretty elite level as they’re able to take time (blocks).”
Though the Wolverines maintained a comfortable lead for most of the second half, their defense proved ineffective more times than it should in this type of non-conference match. Those weaknesses allowed Jackson State to stay neck and neck with Michigan through the end of the first half and the Tigers to shrink a 17-point lead from the Wolverines to just six points in the final two minutes of the game.
“Continuing to work on our defence, playing hard and communicating is a big focus and we’re trying to focus on that in practice,” said graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn. “But a win is a win and we can learn a lot from (both) wins and losses, so let’s take it one step at a time.”
Michigan may not have shown its ability to pull together defensively on Wednesday, but it did show some of the strides it’s made to withstand those mistakes. The Wolverines in particular showed the integral role blocks can play in their defense. As a team, the Wolverines amassed 13 blocks — five more than their previous high of the season, which came in the opening game against a Division II opponent.
Perhaps the most promising part of Michigan’s impressive block performance was its depth. These rim protection skills didn’t come from just one source. In fact, four of the Wolverines’ five starters recorded at least one block, with four players on the team totaling more than one.e.
In general, Michigan looked insecure on defense, lacked communication, and came out flat, playing like five individuals, not a team. There was a clear lack of cohesion at that end, and on many occasions it allowed open looks and easy baskets for Jackson State. As the season progresses, the Wolverines must seal those holes and limit avoidable scores.
Even with a win, Michigan understands their weaknesses defensively and the importance of forming a concise unit.
“We’re not where we want to be defensively,” said Jett Howard, the rookie. “…We’re just trying to get the rhythm going on offense and defense and hopefully we’ll be better by January but we’re working hard.”
As the Wolverines approach matchups against ranked teams in Virginia and Kentucky, followed by a series of competitive Big Ten opponents, they must find their defensive identity.
Against the Tigers, Michigan showed a path to work toward.