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January 5, 2014

Wolverines clamp down on defense

The Wolverines had been in this position before.

The shots weren't falling, and the Michigan men's basketball team was slogging through a first half full of missed opportunities - and missed three-pointers.

For a team that has, in Michigan coach John Beilein's tenure, affirmed the old adage of "live by the three, die by the three," Sunday afternoon's 74-51 win over Northwestern was an encouraging step in the right direction, thanks to a solid 40 minutes of defense.

The Wolverines shot eight three-pointers in the opening 20 minutes against the Wildcats, hitting just one (12.5 percent). They have struggled from downtown at times this year, hitting 8-of-29 in a 77-70 loss at Iowa State; 5-of-23 in a 63-61 loss vs. Charlotte and 3-of-13 in a 79-69 loss at Duke.

But against the Wildcats, while the offense was trying to find a rhythm, the defense clamped down.

Once the offense woke up in the second half, Michigan pulled away to keep its record in Big Ten play spotless (10-4 overall, 2-0 Big Ten).

"Defense is always going to be the key for us," sophomore guard Nik Stauskas said. "We know our offense is eventually going to get there. We need to get stops, steals and clean rebounds to help us. That is going to be the key for us, moving forward."

In the first half, Michigan stifled Northwestern, surrendering just 10-of-24 shooting and allowing the Wildcats to get to the free-throw line just twice.

Northwestern jacked up 11 three-point shots, hitting just three.

"Defense is something you can bring every game," redshirt junior forward Jon Horford said. "You're going to have off games, where you miss shots. You're going to get bad calls. But defense is something you can always bring consistently. You can always box out and dive on the floor for loose balls. If everyone on our team can stick with that mindset, this team is going to have great success."

Although the Michigan defense put together a solid 20 minutes in the first half, there was one constant thorn in its side: Northwestern fifth-year senior guard Drew Crawford.

Crawford, who missed most of last year with a shoulder injury, provided a big chunk of the Wildcats' offense in the first half, scoring 11 of Northwestern's first 15 points.

He finished the first half 5-of-9 from the floor (2-of-5 from three-point range) with 13 points.

"When we didn't guard Drew Crawford the first couple of times, I was thinking, 'No one on the team has seen him play,'" Michigan coach John Beilein said. "No one was here two years ago, when we last played him. We had to convince everyone that the kid can really play - you can't stand around and watch him shoot."

Stauskas admitted that Crawford got the best of him on a couple quick drop-back threes in the first half.

"That was definitely something we talked about at half time, just making sure that he didn't get anymore of those," Stauskas said. "We got in the gaps and always made sure that he saw a couple defenders."

The Wolverines made the proper adjustments, including matching up sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III on Crawford for the majority of the second half.

After the break, Crawford scored just four more points on 1-of-5 field goals (0-of-3 from three-point range).

"He was killing it in the first half," sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht said. "He's a really good player. He is coming off that shoulder injury, but he's a really good player. We really had to clamp down on him in the second half.

"We were able to contain him a little, and it made it that much easier defensively."

It might not have been a pretty game of basketball - but a win is a win. And defense will be a key moving forward.

"The business is getting wins," Horford said. "No matter how we do it, if it's by two or 50, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. If a guy scores 40 points or three, it doesn't matter. It's all about the team and getting wins. When the team is having success, everyone can be happy about that.

"We're a young team. We're still growing and finding our identity. We had an identity last year. As a team, we're on our way, but we're not there yet. And that's a good thing, because we haven't played our best basketball, yet. Not by a long shot. And that's encouraging, because guys keep improving every day. Every week, practice is more competitive. By the end of the season, I expect great things out of all these guys."


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