With a 12-point lead less than five minutes into the second half, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s defense faced a test. As the Wolverines ran circles around Jackson State’s ball movement, it looked like they were going to fail that test. With Michigan looking lost, Tigers guard Ken Evans drove into the paint, positioning himself for an easy shot. But junior center Hunter Dickinson had other plans.
As the ball left Evans’ hand, Dickinson rose and knocked the ball away from the basket, pulling the Wolverines on a run. It was Dickinson’s fourth block of the game and Michigan’s third of the half. In a contest where the Wolverines’ defense was tough, the rim defense was their saving grace.
“We have guys that are very competitive and they embrace the one-on-one challenge,” Michigan State coach Juwan Howard said Wednesday. “They’re also very good at shooting, and that’s a pretty elite level because they can time (blocks).”
While the Wolverines held a comfortable lead for most of the second half, their defense was ineffective more often than it should have been in this type of non-conference matchup. Those weaknesses allowed Jackson State to stay tied with Michigan for the rest of the first half, and the Tigers cut the Wolverines’ 17-point lead to just six points in the game’s final two minutes.
“Continuing to work on our defense, solid play and communication is a big area of focus and we try to focus on that in practice,” graduate defender Jaelin Llewellyn said. “But a win is a win and we can learn a lot from (both) wins and losses, so we’re taking it one step at a time.”
Michigan may not have shown its ability to unify defensively on Wednesday, but it did show some steps taken to counter those flaws. In particular, the Wolverines have shown the integral role blocks can play in their defense. As a team, the Wolverines tallied 13 blocks, five more than their season high last season, which came in the opening game against a Division II opponent.
Perhaps the most promising part of Michigan’s impressive unit performance was its depth. The prowess of protecting the rim comes from more than one source. In fact, four of the Wolverines’ five starters recorded at least one block, with four players on the team having more than one block.e.
Overall, Michigan looked shaky on defense, lacked communication and came out flat, playing like a five-man team rather than a one-man team. There was a distinct lack of cohesion from this side and on many occasions it allowed Jackson State to get open looks and score easily. As the season progresses, the Wolverines need to patch those holes and limit preventable scoring.
Even in victory, Michigan understands its weaknesses on defense and the importance of forming a compact unit.
“We’re not where we want to be defensively,” freshman Jett Howard said. “… We’re just trying to get our rhythm going offensively and defensively 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 number of competitive Big Ten opponents, they need to find their defensive identity.
Against the Tigers, Michigan showed how he can work to get one.