When Juwan Howard met with his coaching staff during the offseason, he highlighted one specific area he wanted to see Michigan grow most.
“We had our coaches meeting, and I said, ‘We’ve got to be a kickass defensive team,’” Howard said. “It’s that simple. If we want to give us a chance to be one of the elite level teams in the conference, but more importantly college basketball.”
Now in his second season as the Wolverines’ head coach, defense is something he’s emphasized more. On Wednesday night, that made all the difference against No. 16 Minnesota. Michigan held the Gophers to a season-low 52 points in an 82-57 blowout, cementing the 10th-ranked Wolverines’ second consecutive rout of a top-20 opponent.
“Coach Howard and the coaching staff did a good job of preparing us on defense because if you go a little bit without doing defense, you get a little lackadaisical,” senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “I remember doing defense every day for five or six days. Coach Howard wasn’t playing.”
For much of the night, Michigan suffocated Minnesota. That’s no small feat, as the Gophers’ offense entered Wednesday as the Big Ten’s fifth-highest scoring unit at 81.6 points per game.
That started with stopping Minnesota star Marcus Carr, who averaged 22.1 points through the Gophers’ first 12 games. Eli Brooks drew the assignment and lived up to his billing as one of the conference’s premier perimeter defenders. Carr finished with 14 points on just 5-of-16 shooting.
“Eli, man, we know this,” Livers said. “Eli Brooks is known for shutting down the best point guards on each team. I think he’s the best defensive players in the Big Ten if you ask me, but that’s a little biased. We have a lot more games left to go. With Eli, we feed off his energy. He started from the tip and he was gonna shut Marcus Carr down or at least slow him down a little bit.”
Around the rim, freshman center Hunter Dickinson dominated his much-anticipated matchup against Liam Robbins, who entered the game as the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week following a 27-point, 14-rebound performance against Ohio State. Robbins scored the Gophers’ first five points, but went radio silent afterwards. He finished with just five points on 2-for-9 shooting, while Dickinson posted a season-best 28 points and eight rebounds.
For Dickinson, it was yet another performance that silenced questions. His sustained dominance is beginning to speak for itself on both ends of the floor, especially after holding his own against another 7-footer.
“You’ve got to be able to guard out here in college,” Dickinson said. “You can’t just be a one way player. Coach is always telling me to be a two way player and that’s really what you gotta be at this level. Those one way players, they really get exposed on defense. If you’re just a scorer, teams will come back and attack you on the offensive end so I think that’s something I’ve made a big emphasis on is try to defend my position, not be a weak link out there and hold my weight with the rest of the team.”
With the win, Michigan now sits at No. 18 in KenPom’s national adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. That’s good for third-best in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin and Indiana. It’s an area where the Wolverines have taken a major step forward since last season, and it’s one they know they’ll have to rely on as they contend for a conference title.