Charles Matthews leaped high, caught the ball and slammed it down for a putback dunk, drawing a foul in the process.
Then Michigan went back on defense — and that’s when the Wolverines really imposed their will.
North Carolina’s Seventh Woods missed badly. The Tar Heels got an offensive rebound, and Leaky Black tried a shot of his own. Rejected out of bounds by Jon Teske. Black then drove one-on-one against Matthews, and the 6-foot-6 guard swatted that shot out of play toward a group of Michigan cheerleaders.
Less than two years after a Big Ten opponent called Michigan a “white-collar” team, the Wolverines have emphatically shed that label. They still rely on elements of finesse, especially on offense, but at the other end of the court, Michigan now plays with an edge, cutting off drives, scrapping for steals and blocking shots with contempt.
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“They’re having fun,” coach John Beilein said. “That’s not a bad thing, to have confidence and that swagger, as long as we don’t show up the other team.”
Michigan reached the national title game last season, losing to Villanova. While the Wolverines returned plenty of key players, star big man Moe Wagner left early for the NBA. Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are gone as well.
So far Michigan (7-0) hasn’t missed a beat. The Wolverines won a rematch at Villanova by 27 points, and they beat North Carolina 84-67 on Wednesday. The final margin against the Tar Heels was actually Michigan’s closest of the season. Next up for the seventh-ranked Wolverines is 19th-ranked Purdue on Saturday to open Big Ten play.
“We just basically came together and said let’s not wait until the end of the year to be special,” Matthews said.
Freshman Iggy Brazdeikis took Wagner’s No. 13 jersey and has replicated his fearlessness. Brazdeikis is averaging a team-high 16.9 points per game.
Teske, meanwhile, is playing more minutes, and although he doesn’t have the offensive game of Wagner or Brazdeikis, he gives Michigan another line of defense at the rim. The 7-foot-1 Teske blocked five shots against North Carolina.
“They’re real solid on defense,” North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson said after being held to five points in Ann Arbor. “They don’t really help much because they defend the ball well. They got us out of our sets on offense.”
It was Illinois’ Maverick Morgan who said during the 2016-17 season that Michigan was a white-collar team, and at the time, it was hard to argue otherwise. But toward the end of that season, and through all of 2017-18, the Wolverines set about changing that perception.
“(Assistant coach) Luke Yaklich says, ‘We’re going to contest shots with every fiber of our being,'” Beilein said. “He actually says that, and we do.”
Michigan gets contributions throughout the lineup, but Matthews and point guard Zavier Simpson are the embodiment of what the Wolverines have become. Simpson is averaging only 5.9 points but is immensely valuable because of his defense on opposing point guards. Matthews is athletic enough that he can make a big impact even on a poor shooting day.
“Charles is possessed at defense. He and Zavier are the most driven defensive players I’ve ever coached,” Beilein said. “This is what they want to do, and the offense is sort of residual out of it.”
That made for a long night for North Carolina and coach Roy Williams, who ripped himself and his team afterward. Even amid his frustration, Williams could appreciate what he saw from Beilein’s group.
“They have a sense of urgency on the defensive end,” Williams said. “They’re hard to screen because they fight through the screens. If they switch, they communicate and get that done. I like his team.”
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