April 7, 2013

Maligned defense draws notice

Syracuse made one-third (33.4 percent) of its three-point field goals this season. On the biggest stage, with a berth in the national championship game as a prize, the Orangemen didn't keep pace, prompting grudging praise for Michigan's defense from Jim Boeheim.

The Syracuse head coach found himself in a sour mood anyway following Michigan's 61-56 national semifinals victory. He was being peppered with questions about whether he'd be back next year, and his team - one averaging 70.4 points per game on the season - didn't hit 60 when it counted.

The Orangemen also knocked down just 3 of 14 three-pointers, good for 21.4 percent on the night. And Boeheim, whose players had openly questioned Michigan's defense in the days leading up to the game, had little choice but to backtrack a bit … sort of.

"I think they're a good defensive team," Boeheim said. "We have not shot the ball well from three this year. In our losses, we're shooting about 20 percent from the three, in our nine losses. It hasn't been something that we've been really good on.

"We try not to take a lot of threes. But we had good looks. I mean, they were all good looks.

"You know, they made eight threes, and we made three. That's the difference in the game, really, when you look at it."

In truth, that's hardly a ringing endorsement of Michigan's perimeter defense. And the Wolverines themselves have acknowledged their defensive deficiencies throughout the season and into their NCAA Tournament run.

They're still no lock-down unit, especially on the interior, the Wolverines generally admit. But they've gotten better along the way - enough to limit Syracuse to a Wisconsin-like 56 points in the ouster.

U-M assistant coach Bacari Alexander said afterward: "In this instance, we were underrated in the sense that, when a person has the basketball on the opposing team, you're not going up against that one guy. You're going up against five players.

"What we try to do is build walls, keep offenses on the perimeter. And when they penetrate, we try to rotate over and provide support. That's what you saw out of Jordan Morgan, taking two big charges down the stretch."

Freshman Glenn Robinson III noted U-M's effort on the defensive end of the court. He and the rest of his teammates have been hearing about it for weeks and months, and he was gratified to see the Orangemen put up such a low number with so much on the line.

"We know defense is our key to winning," Robinson said. "I thought we did a pretty good job on them defensively, especially in the first half. We held them to [56] points, which was good. We've got to go out and have a defensive mindset in this last game."

Michigan's defense remains far from a finished produce. But in five NCAA Tournament wins thus far, four of them involved holding an opponent in the 50s.

They've beaten South Dakota State (71-56), VCU (78-53), Florida (79-59) and now Syracuse (61-56). The only exception has been the 87-85 overtime shootout against a senior-laden No. 1 seed Kansas, in which the Wolverines had to call on all their firepower to pull out the victory.

Defense isn't the first, second or third item when the talking heads get rolling on the Wolverines. There isn't any question, though, that aspect of their game has improved. If it hadn't, they wouldn't be playing in the national championship game.

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