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Defense is the reason Michigan made it to San Antonio

After years of being led by sharpshooters, the Wolverines have set the tone on the defensive end this season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Michigan vs Florida State Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

“Michigan has yet to play any good team in the Tournament.”

“Michigan has looked extremely sloppy in three of its four games.”

“Michigan eked out yet another boring win to move on.”

The list goes on and on, but all those statements have a hint of truth in them and no one is suggesting that the No. 3 seeded Michigan Wolverines should take on a victim complex as they waltz into the Final Four this weekend. But just as I argued against two weeks ago, there is more than meets the eye with this team.

This is not a narrative approach taking quotes from head coach John Beilein and his staff about how Michigan basketball has undergone a change in philosophy on the defensive end.

This is not a film study, nor an opinion-laden opus. No, this is a look at the cold, hard stats that paint a very clear picture — defense is what has brought Michigan this far.

Opponent shooting against Michigan

Opponent FG% vs. Mich Average 3PT% vs. Mich Average
Opponent FG% vs. Mich Average 3PT% vs. Mich Average
Montana 0.321 0.467 0.200 0.339
Houston 0.370 0.461 0.389 0.387
Texas A&M 0.478 0.460 0.200 0.329
Florida State 0.320 0.468 0.235 0.350

In almost every measurable way, Michigan’s opponents have performed well below their season averages offensively against the Maize and Blue this March. The Texas A&M numbers may seem fine, but the Aggies shot just .375 in the first half of the game before the Wolverines coasted through the second half with a lead hovering around 20 points.

What this chart does not show are Michigan’s season averages on defense of .424 from the field and .330 from deep. Taking the numbers above, it becomes obvious the defense has not been messing around during the NCAA Tournament.

The games may look sloppy, but that is by design. Opponents are finding no consistency against Michigan, and all four of these teams had outings far worse than their typical numbers. It seems highly unlikely for this to be a coincidence.

Michigan’s shooting numbers

Opponent Mich FG% Average Mich 3PT% Average
Opponent Mich FG% Average Mich 3PT% Average
Montana 0.447 0.430 0.313 0.358
Houston 0.356 0.394 0.267 0.324
Texas A&M 0.619 0.408 0.583 0.326
Florida State 0.388 0.417 0.182 0.355

Aside from the assault during the Sweet 16, Michigan has been kept in check by most opposing defenses. The Wolverines have struggled to meet their .470 field goal percentage or .366 mark from behind the arc they showed during the regular season, and paired with continuing free throw issues this has hampered the offense.

These numbers further the idea that defense is the driving tone for this team. Yes, better shooting outings are probably needed to win the game(s) ahead, but Michigan can feel completely confident resting on its strengths.

Defense is the way

In past seasons, the goal was to rain down threes and attempt to run the other team out of the gym. This can certainly happen with the current roster, as it did against Texas A&M, but it is not the only way — or even the best way — for Michigan to win.

Casual observers and non-Big Ten fans are probably unsure of how to view this Michigan team. Many are likely to remember the squads from the past five years with lights-out shooters and rampant offensive attacks, which look nothing like the last four games. Understandably, this leads to comments such as “sloppy,” “boring” and “lucky.”

However, anyone who takes a deeper look at the numbers should be able to find the truth. There have been sloppy moments at times, there have been stretches without points from either side and there is at least one particular moment that is fair to consider lucky, but these should not overwhelm the bigger theme.

John Beilein has made this team into a defensive power. Michigan can lock down a team’s best assets on offense and make scoring into an arduous chore. So while fans of other teams may think the Wolverines were fortunate to face each of their opponents on an “off day” or think that they have only made it this far because of their draw, point them to the facts — Michigan is a brick wall that has been executing exactly to plan this March.