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Joe Boozell | | December 14, 2018

How Michigan transformed into a defensive powerhouse the past two seasons

Michigan moves to the top of Andy Katz's new Power 36

Michigan is the No. 1 team in Andy Katz's Power 36 rankings this week, and it's at that point because of defense. That's not a sentence anyone would have expected to type two years ago.

John Beilein has been known as an offensive coach ever since his West Virginia days. But the current Michigan basketball surge has been all about the other side of the floor. Here's how the Wolverines have fared defensively during Beilein's tenure in Ann Arbor.

*Rankings via KenPom

Michigan defense
Year Defensive Ranking
2008 129
2009 67
2010 58
2011 37
2012 56
2013 37
2014 89
2015 100
2016 92
2017 69
2018 3
2019* 1

One thing to note: Michigan had some really nice seasons before its defensive leap. The Wolverines made the national championship game in 2013; they finished first in offense and 37th in defense. The next year, they won 28 games by finishing third in offense and 89th in defense.

That's the what. But how about the why? Michigan's improved defense is surprising, but it's not a coincidence.

Here are three reasons why the Wolverines have the most feared defense in America right now.

MORE: college basketball home

They've prioritized 3-and-D wings

Michigan may not recruit at the level of teams like Duke or Kentucky, but John Beilein prioritizes guys who fit where modern college basketball is going. Players who can shoot 3s and defend multiple positions are incredibly valuable in 2018, and Beilein has leaned into that thinking.

No. 5 Michigan beats South Carolina, remains undefeated

A lot of teams would be thrilled to have one capable 3-and-D wing. The Wolverines have four: Charles Matthews, Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers. All of them can guard multiple positions and must be accounted for on offense. The Wolverines have great defensive versatility because they have several guys who can guard multiple positions; Michigan can switch as much as it wants to, or it can play straight up man-to-man. The Wolverines are able to help more effectively than most teams because of their like-sized personnel. Beat Poole off the dribble, for example, and Matthews is able to take on his assignment without a hiccup because of his ability to guard all perimeter positions.

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Teams can't play mismatch basketball against Michigan because there's no weak link on the perimeter, and ball screens are mostly switchable. That doesn't sound sexy, but it's extremely important when it comes to point prevention.

They hardly ever foul

Outside of dunks, the free-throw is the most efficient shot in basketball. The Wolverines are great at playing physical defense without gifting opponents trips to the foul line.

Purdue falls to Michigan, 76-57 in Big Ten opener

Foes get to the stripe on just 19.2 percent of their possessions against Michigan, the lowest mark in the country. What's even more remarkable is that the Wolverines' 2-point defense is significantly better than its 3-point defense, which is surprising given how little Michigan hacks. Teams are shooting less than 40 percent on 2s against the Wolverines, which ranks fourth in the country.

Michigan allows 3s at a decent clip, but it's excellent at sealing off the rim without fouling. It goes back to having mobile wings who can move side-to-side without having to reach. The Wolverines don't have the most explosive vertical athletes, but their collective lateral mobility is impressive. Switching also prevents the need to foul because the offensive player doesn't gain an advantage on a screen. The perks of having multi-positional defenders.

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A side note: Michigan is getting a little lucky in the sense that opponents are only hitting 63.1 percent of their foul shots against them. But the low volume isn't luck; it's the function of great technique.

They play the math and allow the right kind of shots

Opponents make 31.8 percent of their 3s against Michigan, which isn't high, but isn't spectacular. The Wolverines rank 102nd in that category.

But they don't allow opponents to take many 3s, which is more important than the actual percentage. Opponents take only 29.4 percent of their shots from 3-point range against Michigan, the ninth-lowest mark in the nation. Foes struggle mightily from mid and close range against the Wolverines, which is great. But they reach another level because they bait opponents into taking more of those shots.

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Michigan is the best closeout team in the country, and it can run players off the 3-point line with such confidence and conviction because players know there's not a weak link behind them. Close out with a little too much vigor, and you may get beat. That broken link in the chain might be enough to destroy a possession for some teams.

But not the Wolverines. They know help is behind them, and they trust it. They also trust the math, knowing that it's much better to allow an open midrange jumper than an open 3-pointer.

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