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Phil Martelli, Will Tschetter talk defensive struggles, Indiana’s domination in paint after loss

Defense has been a concern all season long.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After last night’s loss to Indiana to tip-off conference play, the Michigan Wolverines have fallen to 4-5 on the season. It’s the team’s worst start through nine games since the 2007-08 season, where the Wolverines started 3-6 in John Beilein’s first year as head coach.

There’s plenty of reasons why this team has struggled so far — they’re turning the ball over too much, they’re not making free throws late in games, and they still can’t seem to pull out wins in close games, an issue that plagued them last season.

But perhaps the biggest reason why they’ve gotten off to this slow start is their poor play on defense. On average, the Wolverines have allowed 76.6 points per game, a mark that as of Wednesday morning ranks 286th out of 351 teams in Division I men’s college basketball, and 11th out of Big Ten teams. They are also rated 133rd in adjusted defense on KenPom.

The Hoosiers dominated the Wolverines in the paint Tuesday night, outscoring Michigan 52-28 on the inside.

“They went to their strength,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said in his opening statement to the media last night. “We didn’t have enough to win a 15-round fight. Probably had a enough to win a 12-round fight, not a 15-round fight. And every night in the Big Ten is going to be a 15-round fight.”

The Hoosiers leaned on their strength, with forward Will Tschetter saying how hard it was to guard their two bigs — 6-foot-9 Malik Reneau (15 points) and 7-footer Kel’el Ware (13 points).

“They got two really talented bigs down there,” Tschetter said. “All credit to them, they’re really good. Myself included, I take responsibility, probably need to be more physical. We need to be better doing our work early, making sure that they’re not getting the looks they want.”

When asked to elaborate on Indiana’s solid night in the paint, Martelli said they did a great job moving the ball. The Hoosiers did have 13 turnovers on the night, but also seven assists.

“When I looked at them, I thought they were a superior, not average, superior interior passing team,” Martelli said. “It’s a tribute to them because going in, they know where their bread is buttered. Again, overwhelming size across the board, their size was different.”

It feels like every team has had their best shooting night of the season against Michigan, and Martelli said on Monday he wanted to see better close-outs and transition defense to prevent teams from knocking down threes and playing at a quick pace.

When Maize n Brew asked Martelli if he saw any improvements in those two areas, he thought this Indiana game was different. He was impressed by the fact they only allowed the Hoosiers to make three three-point shots, albeit they only shot it from beyond the arc nine times. He also emphasized the Wolverines need to get better about playing at a quicker pace, even when their opponent is slowing the game down.

“Different type of challenge,” Martelli said. “You have a team coming in, they only averaged four made threes. Two of the threes were not closed out well enough, but they’re not going to look for a lot of threes. Were we better at it? I can’t judge that.

“Did we get better at tracing the ball? Probably a C, but not a B or an A game when we need it. I didn’t feel like we were at a disadvantage in transition. I would flip it and say one of the things we have to get back to is — we now have to push at other teams to make them uncomfortable.”

This was yet another close game the Wolverines let slip from their fingertips. They started off the second half well, with Nkamhoua scoring eight points before the first media timeout. They had a six-point lead after Tschetter hit a three-pointer at the 8:59 mark, but they let Indiana crawl back with easy points in the paint.

The Wolverines did not do a good job playing defense after their own makes, and Tschetter acknowledged that.

“Ever since we got to the beginning of practice in September, we always talked about ‘score, stop, score, stop, score, stop,’ it felt we started to get a little complacent,” Tschetter said. “We’re not going to shoot 100 percent from the field ... we can’t let it affect us on the other end. I think it’s almost a bit like a mindset switch that we have to have. We just really can’t let our offense affect what we’re doing on the defensive end.”