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What Michigan’s defense needs to improve on before Big Ten play starts back up

Among other issues, the Wolverines do not communicate very well.

NCAA Basketball: Jumpman Invitational-Michigan at North Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines are 7-4 on the year, without a marquee win heading into Christmas. They’ve beaten all the teams they were supposed to, they got throttled by Arizona State, and they lost tight games to talented teams in Virginia, Kentucky and UNC.

The Wolverines have so much talent, but they have no semblance of chemistry and communicate poorly on both ends. They made way too many mistakes on the defensive end to come away with victories against those quality opponents.

Anyone watching these games knows that Michigan needs to improve defensively, and the stats back it up:

  • The Wolverines are 94th in adjusted defense on KenPom, giving up 98.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark worse than Nevada, Pittsburgh and New Mexico.
  • If you’ve been betting on the over in Michigan basketball games, you probably bought some more expensive Christmas presents this year. The Wolverines give up 72.1 points per game, a mark that ranks 255th in D-I college basketball, tied with Alabama, Davidson and UC Davis. It has to be noted that the Wolverines have played a fairly tough non-conference schedule: according to ESPN, their strength of schedule is 49th in the country. Still, that’s a lot of points to give up in college basketball.
  • It’s early in the season, but Michigan is firmly out of the NCAA tournament right now. They are 85th in BPI, a stat meant to project performance going forward based on past performance. In Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology—which was last updated before Michigan’s loss to UNC and Missouri’s throttling of Illinois—the Wolverines are listed firmly in the Next Four Out with Rutgers, Missouri and LSU.

Those defensive mistakes were the main reason why Michigan lost their most recent game to North Carolina. I highly recommend watching Dan Plocher’s video for us, as he does a great job breaking down miscues on both ends.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the mistakes on the defensive end. The time cues in quotations come from Dan’s video above.

Communication issues and bad post defense

The Wolverines are like the manager that everyone complains about at your workplace: they don’t communicate enough, and they act out of frustration when they make mistakes.

Armando Bacot is one of the best big men in college basketball, and the Wolverines couldn’t stop him on Wednesday, as he dominated them for 26 points on 11-for-15 shooting. Michigan didn’t seem to have a plan for him: Hunter Dickinson and Tarris Reed Jr. couldn’t stop him, and got absolutely bodied against a guy with more stamina and better post positioning.

On top of that, Michigan never really committed to doubling him, as you saw multiple times (with T-Will and Dug McDaniel at 4:05 and Jett Howard at 14:20), the help either came way too late or didn’t come at all against a dominant post player.

That’s a coaching issue; Michigan has to have a clear plan of whether they are going to double a dominant post player, and when it’s going to happen (on the catch, on the dribble, etc.). We saw this in the Kentucky loss too with Oscar Tshiebwe. There were way too many times where Michigan wasn’t sure what to do with post players.

They aren’t going to face guys as good as Bacot or Tshiebwe every game, but there’s lots of talented Big Ten bigs Michigan needs to a better job scheming for.

Frustration fouls need to be avoided

A big reason why Michigan lost this game was foul trouble. Michigan's two best players in Dickinson and Jett Howard had to sit for extended periods with foul trouble, with Dickinson and Kobe Bufkin ultimately fouling out.

This is a young Michigan team that has to a better job staying disciplined and not fouling out of frustration, which happened a lot against North Carolina.

We saw frustration fouls out of Dug McDaniel (8:07) off of a turnover and Jace Howard (10:10) fighting for the ball after a miss. The most costly frustration foul came from Jett Howard (4:52), who picked up his second foul trying to recover in transition after trying to do too much on offense and turning the ball over.

UNC dominated in the first half after that second foul from Howard, as they outscored Michigan 24-12 to close the half. This isn’t solely a Jett Howard problem; the Wolverines need to avoid dumb fouls and play smarter, as they don’t have the depth to survive against good teams when they’re in foul trouble.

The worst miscommunication of the game was the nail in the coffin

Fast forward to the 15:30 mark of Dan’s video, and get ready to rip your eyeballs out of their sockets.

There’s 1:03 left in the game, and Michigan has made a comeback. They are only down 73-71, and have a real chance to steal this game in Charlotte.

On the second screen from Bacot, Dickinson and Dug McDaniel, the smallest player on the court, switch, putting McDaniel on the dominant big and Dickinson out on the perimeter. Not sure if this was a miscommunication between the guys or if that’s what the coaches told them to do, but either way, it shouldn’t have happened.

Maize N Brew’s Dan Plocher

Dickinson realizes this mistake and wants to quickly switch back, but it’s way too late for that. In that process, he turns his head to R.J. Davis. After UNC doesn’t find an open lane to get Bacot the ball, they swing it over to Davis, who lets Bufkin fly by him before driving to the basket for an easy basket.

Miscommunications like this defensively happen way too often for the Wolverines. They have to talk more on defense, and they need a better game-plan on guarding ball screens against certain players.

A quick shoutout to Will Tschetter

We haven’t seen much of Will Tschetter this year, but the redshirt freshman has carved out some minutes for himself thanks to rotating well defensively and playing with effort.

As Ant Wright broke down in a recent Twitter video, Tschetter doesn’t give up in transition, rotates well defensively, and does a great job crashing the boards to force defenses to pay attention to him on box outs.

Tschetter has a lot of work to do on the offensive end, but this effort and defensive intensity is a good way to get a coaching staff to like you. Don’t be surprised if we see more of him in the coming games.

What’s next

Michigan needs to improve defensively, and needs to do it fast. After a home matchup with Central Michigan on Dec. 29 to close the calendar year, the Wolverines face Maryland (Jan. 1), Penn State (Jan. 4) and Michigan State on the road, all teams currently projected to make the NCAA tournament according to Joe Lunardi’s bracketology.

For both a confidence builder and a resume boost, Michigan has to win three or four of those games.

The beauty of the Big Ten is you can improve your tournament resume almost every night with how good the conference is. The bad news is the schedule can be an absolute gauntlet, and Michigan needs to avoid a long losing streak and major defensive lapses to keep their tournament hopes alive.