ANN ARBOR — Maybe it was a letdown after playing two straight ranked opponents. Maybe it was Michigan buying its own hype after moving into the top-5. Maybe the Wolverines ran into some tough matchups.
Maybe it was none of things. But Michigan hadn’t played as well the past three games as it had the previous eight, despite maintaining an unbeaten record. Head coach John Beilein set out to correct that before Saturday’s game against Air Force.
“We had to get back to playing with the edge that we played with earlier in the year,” Beilein said Thursday. “I think we’ve done that the last couple of days with practice.”
Defense was the biggest issue. Beilein said after Saturday’s 70-62 win over Western Michigan that it was the third straight game he was not pleased with his team’s defense. Three of Michigan’s four worst defensive performances, as far as points per possession allowed, have come in the past three games.
Through eight games, no opponent had shot better than 40 percent against Michigan. But Northwestern (45 percent), South Carolina (52 percent), and Western Michigan (46 percent) easily cracked that number.
“You’re not going to be at every game all year long the exact same intensity,” Beilein said. “But I think attention to detail probably was the biggest slippage we had.”
Beilein gave Western Michigan’s Michael Flowers as an example. Flowers scored 31 points against Michigan. He’s a talented guard who has scored at least 20 in three other games this season, including a 23-point performance against a stingy Cincinnati defense. He made some difficult shots against Michigan. But he also had more space to operate than Beilein preferred.
“My analogy to the team was, ‘I didn’t see Carsen Edwards get this open. Carsen Edwards never got open. He never had that. Whether we switched or whatever. All the sudden, Flowers is better than Carsen Edwards?’ That was sort of the message. ‘Coby White did not get this open.’ And no matter who we’re playing we have to have that mentality.”
Playing against Purdue’s Edwards, who entered the game with Michigan averaging 25 points per game, the Wolverines were determined to slow him. Edwards needed 21 shots to get his 19 points. Likewise against North Carolina’s freshman sensation, who had to work for his 12 points.
Not having the same sense of urgency against Flowers led to him scoring 10 more points against Michigan than any other player had this season.
Air Force doesn’t have a player averaging more than 12 points per game. The Falcons’ offense is ranked 269 out of 353 Division I teams on KenPom.com. But the recent issues the Wolverines have shown defensively have more to do with themselves than their opponents.
Beilein believes they have recaptured, during this week of practice, the focus and energy level required to play elite defense. They’ll get a chance to show it on Saturday.