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Anchored by rim protection, Michigan’s defense stymies Purdue

The Wolverines held Purdue star Trevion Williams to 6-of-19 shooting on Friday.

Michigan v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

For a freshman, Michigan center Hunter Dickinson has done a great job staying out of foul trouble so far this season. He hasn’t fouled out of a game yet, and he’s reached four personals only once.

But during the seventh-ranked Wolverines’ trip to Purdue on Friday, he picked up a pair of quick ones. Austin Davis, who replaced Dickinson, followed suit soon after.

Against undersized Big Ten teams, that’d be manageable. Given the Boilermakers’ affinity for playing through the post, however, it appeared to be a recipe for disaster at Mackey Arena. Purdue entered Friday’s game leading the conference in post-up attempts per game. Trevion Williams posted 36 points in Ann Arbor last season, while freshman Zach Edey’s 7-foot-4 adds a matchup nightmare to their roster this year.

Buoyed by a team effort, Michigan found a way to limit the Boilermakers’ production around the rim. Franz Wagner, Brandon Johns, Isaiah Livers and Terrance Williams all contributed to defending the interior, which resulted in Williams and Edey accounting for just 18 combined points on 7-of-21 shooting in the Wolverines’ 70-53 win.

“They all did a great job,” Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said. “And it was not easy. Because like I said, Trevion and Edey are very good. Some of the best bigs in this conference and also in the country. Our guys were in there battling and competing. … This was a game where it was built on physicality. Old school, Big Ten type of game. There were times I recall playing in the Big Ten, Big Ten has always been a physical conference, but tonight really was a game about physicality.”

At the outset, it seemed like Dickinson and Davis’ early fouls would open the door for Purdue to mount a comeback. Instead, the Wolverines threw the kitchen sink at the Boilermakers’ post-up players to hold their own at that end of the floor.

Williams, especially, presented a major challenge for Michigan. At 265 pounds, he’s earned a reputation within the Big Ten for pushing defenders around on the block. But the Wolverines found a way to hold him under 50% shooting for the first time since Dec. 25, snapping a six-game streak.

To stop him, the Wolverines needed to fall back on fundamentals.

“I think just throwing a body for 40 minutes,” senior guard Eli Brooks said. “That’s tough on anybody. We pushed him off his spots and made every shot difficult. Try to contest without fouling. He’s a good player so he’s gonna get to his spots, just make everything contested.”

Added Livers: “Really just move our feet. … Move your feet, hands up, and then obviously the guy guarding the passer we try to teach, just get into them, they’ll miss the moment, won’t be able to throw it in as easy, try to get deflections, and if not at the guard, we all have the habit so take it to the chest.”

At the end of the night, the deliberately technical approach paid off. Williams shot 32% from the field and reached the foul line just twice, a major drop-off from his season averages. And when the final buzzer sounded, it was Williams — not the Wolverines — who left Mackey Arena frustrated.