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Mike Lopresti | | November 21, 2018

College basketball: The incredible numbers behind Michigan's lockdown defense in its 5-0 start

Andy Katz previews the Big Ten

In the third game of his George Washington career Saturday night, junior guard DJ Williams led his team with 16 points in an 84-61 loss to Michigan. So why is that significant?

Because Michigan has played and won five games so far this season — and Williams’ 16 are the most points anyone from anywhere has managed against the Wolverines. Nobody else has scored more than 13. Nobody from Villanova had more than 10. Then again, only one team has broken 50 against them.

Yes, just listen to that chant coming right now from Ann Arbor. “Dee-fense! Dee-fense! Dee-fense!” And no, that’s not the football team getting ready for Ohio State. Have you noticed what Michigan basketball has been up to, while charging out to a 5-0 start?

Norfolk State didn’t score in the first seven minutes in the season opener. The Spartans put up only 13 points in the first half, 44 for the game.

Next, Holy Cross scored 13 points in the second half and finished with 37.

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The halftime score at Villanova was 44-17. It seemed like a typo on the television screen. When the 73-46 throttling was over, the Wildcats had 14 field goals, but 21 turnovers.

George Washington actually scored 61 points, but couldn’t get to 40 percent shooting.

Providence missed 16 of its 18 3-pointers, hit only 28 percent overall, and lost 66-47.

Five wins, 47 points a game given up, 32.2 percent shooting allowed. A tour de defense through the pre-Thanksgiving schedule. But how?

“People ask well, what’s the scheme or what do you do?” coach John Beilein said at Villanova. “We have really good individual defenders.”

Yeah, so Jay Wright noticed. “They weren’t really complicated. They executed extremely well. That’s the key. It doesn’t matter how much you have; it’s how well you execute what you have.

“This could be John’s best defensive team.”

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Michigan opponents have seen this movie before. Last spring, to be exact, when the Wolverines defended their way to the national championship game. They put on a clinic on ball screen guarding and led the Big Ten in scoring defense for the first time in 54 years. They held Florida State to 54 points in the regional championship, and Loyola Chicago to 57 in the Final Four.

“I think they’re a little tougher, personally,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said at the Big Ten tournament, trying to describe what Michigan had become. "I think Matthews is a great athlete that prides himself on guarding. And Simpson 100 percent prides himself on his defense.”

Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson. The Wolverines lost several important faces from last season, but guess what two guys came back? “This is what they do, this is what they love to do, this is what they do for our team,” Beilein said. “They have a defensive mindset. They want to know (who they’re guarding). That’s what makes them go, is who they’re guarding.”

The rest of the team is following along, including 7-1 roadblock in the middle, Jon Teske. And the Wolverines do it without hacking. They’ve made 63 free throws so far, their opponents have shot 61. Nobody’s been able to hurt them with passing, either. The five teams to play Michigan have averaged barely eight assists a game.

MORE: college basketball home | Scoreboard

Beilein has been around the block. This is his 41st year as a college coach, each and every one of them as the head guy in charge. He has an assistant, Luke Yaklich, who was a student manager in college, studied the game’s nuances and is now a defensive guru. Beilein has taken four different schools to the NCAA tournament, a lot of that early — especially at West Virginia —  with a renowned 1-3-1 zone defense. Not anymore. The Wolverines are a man-to-man monster.

“You have to coach to what your team does well,” Beilein said. “And while we try to develop the team -- we have a young team that can develop in a lot of areas -- there’s one thing that we know we can do, so we just work at it really hard.

“We really are probably going to be as good as our defense is going to be this year.”

That defense has Michigan on the move in the polls, going from No. 19 to No. 9 in the latest Associated Press rankings, the highest of six Big Ten teams in the top 25. The Wolverines face Chattanooga Friday, but next week will tell a lot more. North Carolina will be in Ann Arbor Wednesday with its 98-point scoring average. Three days later, Purdue will come to town with All-American Carsen Edwards, who is rolling along at 26.6 points a game.

So far, though, one fact is indisputable. Michigan is hard to score against. Jim Harbaugh can only hope it turns out the same for the football team Saturday in Columbus.

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