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Phil Martelli talks Michigan defense, pressure to win, MSU preparation

Martelli spoke with media ahead of the rematch with MSU

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 27 Illinois at Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Following Sunday’s home loss to No. 15 Illinois, head coach Phil Martelli spoke with Michigan for over 20 minutes, discussing what the team needs to do to make an NCAA tournament run.

When asked how Michigan can improve heading into their next game against Michigan State, Martelli highlighted Michigan’s weaknesses guarding ball screens, as their ineffectiveness on pick-and-rolls opened up a lot of shots for the Fighting Illini. He did mention that he and his staff regret not going to a more aggressive, switching style earlier.

“We weren’t really a presence at all in the ball screen defense,” Martelli said after looking at film from the game. “Using our terminology, we had 11 blow-bys, which means they got to the rim...ball screen defense, ball screen defense, ball screen defense is where I come out on that.”

Those defensive breakdowns have plagued Michigan all season long, as that’s a big reason why other teams like Minnesota and Michigan State have had some of their best shooting performances of the year against the Wolverines.

Martelli thought the combination of bad pick-and-roll defense and a lack of rim protection was a big reason why Michigan loss.

“Saddi (Washington) said that’s a really high number,” Martelli said, referring to the 11 blow-bys in the loss. “If you look at our games, it’s never been something where I thought ‘wow, we’re getting we’re getting hurt on this game in and game out’. But it was evident (in this game) with the combination of the blow by and not having rim protection — that’s something we’re going to talk about with Moussa (Diabate), Brandon (Johns) and Hunter (Dickinson), that there has to be some resistance at the rim, cause we’re not always going to be perfect.”

Martelli also stressed the importance of getting Caleb Houstan going in the rivalry game. Martelli and the coaching staff feel that getting him involved and attacking Michigan State’s three-point defense could lead to victory.

“We have to go in here acknowledging Michigan State’s three point defense, and you know what, sometimes you have to go after their strength.” Martelli said. “Caleb’s offense will be a big focal point in our offensive game plan.”

Being a lifelong Philadelphian, Martelli has been in his fair share of rivalry games, but he said there’s an added bonus to this one given the sustained success of Michigan and Michigan State over the last decade or so.

“Having been so engrained in Philadelphia, I understand what it’s like to play the Temple’s or the Villanova’s”, Martelli said. “But I think what’s extraordinary here is the run of successes that each of these programs have had — when you mention it to a manager or support staff, you know Michigan State, that’s different. I’ve marveled at it and I’ve appreciated it.”

Martelli went on to emphasize the importance of this particular rivalry for the sport of college basketball.

“You’re playing for more than just your team, and I think that’s a neat thing, I really do. Martelli said. “I do think these rivalries are healthy. We know that some of these rivalries throughout the country, they’re not healthy...anybody out there, they’ve gone in the backyard and they’ve played tackle football against their brother, or their cousin, or the kid across the street who they consider like a brother. And man, nobody wants to lose that one. Because it’s more than a loss. It stays with you.”

As Dan Plocher broke down for us, in order for the Wolverines to feel good about their tournament chances, they need to win two, preferably three, of their last three games in Michigan State, No. 25 Iowa and No. 22 Ohio State. With those three wins and a win or two in the Big Ten tournament, most bracketologists would project them to get invited the Big Dance.

When asked about the pressure to perform down the stretch, Martelli preached the importance of trying to get better every day and the importance of controlling what you can control.

“There are people that are going to sit in a room and judge your resume, so what our responsibility is is to build that resume up,” Martelli said. “Anytime that spent worrying, which is really what you would be doing, is time away from the game, We have to improve our game, and we will get our just rewards.”

Martelli also touched on his friendship with Tom Izzo, working together in the National Association of Basketball Coaches and saying Izzo was a guy he was on the phone with everyday when the Michigan coach was going through a rough time.

In terms of preparing to play against Izzo and the Spartans, Martelli is anticipating a fast pace physical in-your-face defense all game long.

“They’re going to check your fillings, every play.” Martelli said. “If you’re sneakers aren’t tied tight, you can’t play in this game — I think the other thing would be their total insistence that their teams push the pace. I can remember one of our first meetings we talked about generalizations, and I would say to somebody, ‘who’s the fastest team in the Big Ten?’ and Saddi (Washington) would say ‘it’s not even close, it’s Michigan State.’ It’s the relentlessness, is the thing that I admire the most.”

Martelli also briefly cleared up the mystery regarding Eli Brooks and his potential hand injury — a trainer confirmed to him that no one was sidelined for practice on Monday.