Defense Michigans key to winning down the stretch

Michigan had Thursday off and returns today to prepare for Michigan State Sunday, a crossroads game following a stunning loss at Penn State. The Wolverines spent a week working on defense recently, but they looked as though they'd never played it before in the last 10 minutes in Happy Valley.
The resulting 84-78 loss all but ended their Big Ten hopes. It certainly didn't end the season, head coach John Beilein noted Friday.
"We have to remember we are 23-5, 10-5 in the league," he said. "We've been through a rough stretch here that teams go through. February was not a kind month to us and we have to continue to keep to perform, keep the end in mind these are all learning experiences for March. March is a lot of where you're judged, and here we are in March. That's the type of positive reinforcement we need right now."
If they and MSU (0-2 in its last two games) are struggling, he added, then so are plenty of others.
"If 23-6 and 23-5 is struggling, there are about 330 teams really struggling," Beilein said. "We're both pretty good teams. It's not about perfection."
But it is about improving, something the Wolverines haven't done, especially on the defensive end. There's no lack of chemistry, Beilein insisted, but he couldn't explain why none of his kids played well defensively at PSU, from technique to stance to intensity.
"We used almost the exact same strategies and schemes we used against Illinois that worked very well," Beilein said. "We just could not keep [D.J.] Newbill in front of us. We couldn't do it. It basically came up with three guys guarding him, and then you're two on four on the backside. You can't guard that. I think we've gotten a lot better defensively, but that particular action, we just could not guard it. We'll address it today, but on the fly, it did not work well.
"We have a couple zones we play, and we will continue to look at that. We wouldn't be practicing it if we didn't know how to use it. We've been practicing zone maybe two, three days a week, but we've got to be good at it to run it. It's probably better than whatever we played in the second half the other night; at the same time, you feel better about putting defense out there where at least guys know the rules."
It will take a toughness, too, that his team hasn't shown consistently over the last month.
"A sharper edge - some of those guys are still growing into it," he said. "We talk about it all the time. It's not something you can get out of a guy overnight. It just doesn't happen. They recognize it, see it and watch the film - maybe another year in the weight room …
"This will be a test to that. They will hit us a lot. We have to hit them before they hit us."
Penn State chose to defend by denying sophomore point guard Trey Burke the ball, something U-M has only seen a few times this year.
"You have two different options; don't ever let him give up the ball, just keep it in his hands, screen and find people, and that worked pretty well," Beilein said. "Or he can play off the ball, they face guard him and we play four on four.
"We scored 78 points. That was not the issue. The issue was their 84."
Michigan will have to protect the ball better than it did Wednesday at Penn State to come out with a win, Beilein said.
"The commonality among any of our really tough losses has been turnovers," he said. "We must not allow run-out baskets. We did in this game and we did up at Michigan State. We've just got to take care of the ball.
"They are the leader in the conference in steals, turning people over at a pretty good rate. At the same time, we gave them some really easy baskets because of their defense."
Beielein laid into freshman Nik Stauskas for a defensive mistake at the end of the PSU loss, but he doesn't anticipate any changes to the lineup Sunday.
"We always look at what we can do at specific times of games because of match-ups," he said. "We missed a few assignments that game; we all did. Some were more key than others, but that's the way it is. We don't have anything on our mind right now. We're just going to keep playing, getting better. Nik gives us great stuff offensively and he's improved so much defensively this year."
Freshman Mitch McGary played sparingly and not at all down the stretch at Penn State.
"We were trying to guard the ball screen and he had a couple fouls. They were really turning the corner on that ball screen like crazy," Beilein said. "We just chose Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford to play. I thought both of them were playing well - they give us more experience."
Morgan barely played at MSU due to his ankle injury, but he's back near 100 percent.
"Hopefully it will make a difference," Beilein said. "Jordan at 70 or 80 percent is still a good player. The other night for much of that game he did a really good job, especially offensively. You could feel it.
"Defensively, we all have to continue to work. Hopefully we'll be better. He understands what's happening and can talk a little quicker, louder than other guys who are still processing things."
Playing two big men together remains an option, Beilein said.
"We did it up there and it didn't work very well," he said. "We'll change. Going smaller is an option, as well. We can do both. We give up rebounds but don't give the ball to the other team.
"I thought we had a great rhythm when Jordan was at the four. Guarding Adreian Payne is one thing opposed to some of the other four-men in the league. That was one option we preferred before he was injured, and we were playing it really well. Chasing on the perimeter, though, is a little more taxing on your ability."
Michigan State pounded U-M on the offensive glass last game, an aspect to which the Wolverines will have to adjust.
"The adjustment is we have to continue to understand if there's dribble penetration, people are going to come to the middle and try to give help," Beilein said. "That gives rebounding angles for the offense. Keep people in front of you a little better on the perimeter, angles change and you have an angle to box out.
"Second, there were five or six times with no penetration and time to really hit somebody. We did the high school block-out, hands up. That doesn't work. We have to get a body on someone. Several times we put a body on them hard, the rebound went out to 15 feet and they got the 50-50. But they're averaging 10, Michigan is averaging 10 offensive rebounds per game in the league. That night, they just owned us on the boards."