Throughout the 2022-23 season, one common theme for the Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team has been figuring out how to play together and thrive defensively.
After some so-so showings and crumbling on the defensive side late in games, the Wolverines have their best defensive performance of the season against Maryland, winning 81-46 and only allowing a Michigan program-record 13 points in the first half.
In his media availability Tuesday afternoon, Maize n Brew asked assistant coach Saddi Washington about how this team has improved defensively, and he admitted this young team has definitely made strides on that side of the floor.
“I think it’s just been a natural progression, especially with a lot of new faces trying to really understand what we’re doing at the level that it’s required to be done on a consistent basis,” Washington said. “The other night was fantastic from start to finish. The starting group set the tone, but the rest of the team maintained it throughout, even up until the last few minutes of the game. If we have that mentality moving forward, then we give ourselves a chance to win games.”
We saw solid contributions in that Maryland win from Isaiah Barnes and Will Tschetter, two players we haven’t seen much of since they came to Michigan last year. This season, both have earned more time thanks to the effort they’ve given off the bench. If they keep that up, we should be seeing them for more than two- or three-minute bursts.
“Both Isaiah (Barnes) and Will (Tschetter) have given us the spark that we’ve needed, even in the limited minutes that they’ve had,” Washington said. “Coach (Howard) is really big on ‘stay ready so you don’t have to get ready’ regardless of if you’re playing five minutes a game or 35 minutes a game. The expectation is that you’re dialed in to what we’re trying to get accomplished out on the floor, so the point of the matter is make your minutes count. I think Zay and Will and have done a good job in this early part of the season trying to make every minute that they’re on the floor count.”
The coaches have obviously preached the importance of buying in on defense, but the players have also taken pride in improving on that end of the floor. Jett Howard mentioned that the players have done a much better job of that since the players-only meeting following the embarassing loss to CMU.
“We all started to hold each other accountable more,” Howard said. “Sometimes people are down when you give them criticism, but everyone was open to criticism and not having a bad attitude with it. These last few practices have been guys getting on each other, we haven’t heard the coaches’ voices much anymore. That’s kind of what it has to be.”
Teammates keeping each other in check shows signs of maturity, especially for a team where only four of the guys in the playing rotation — Hunter Dickinson, Terrance Williams II, Jace Howard and Joey Baker — are upperclassmen. Dickinson stressed the importance of learning the play together more as the season has gone along.
“We obviously have the talent, we’ve shown that in the games. If you really want to look at it, 10 or so points go different ways, we could be 12-1 right now.” Dickinson said. “We’re not as bad as the 8-5 record shows. We had games where we just kind of folded at the end. For us, we have to keep that in mind when we’re going into these games. It’s a matter of us not beating us out there.”
You could say the CMU loss lit a fire under Michigan, but the All-American big man doesn’t see it that way. He reiterated they are a young team that will get better with the more time they have to gel together.
“I think that’s something that’s misconstrued, there’s no way to bottle that energy on a game-to-game basis. I think it’s just a daily mirror check,” Dickinson said. “I think for us right now, we’re still trying to build the habits of being a great team, I don’t think we have the habits yet. We’ve shown flashes of it, but they aren’t habits. Because we’re so young, we’re still trying to figure out each other and figure out what it’s like to play D1 basketball at a high level. There’s still that learning stage, and it’s great for us that the season doesn’t end for another three months, so we have time to get better. We’re just trying to build the habits of winning and getting better each and every day.”
We do indeed have a lot of college basketball ahead of us, and playing in the Big Ten makes those few months feel even longer. The Wolverines have a date with the Penn State Nittany Lions tomorrow night, and with the conference they play in, the “no nights off” cliché you hear coaches preach really rings true.
“As you can see across the board, throughout the league, there’s no gimmes in this league,” Washington said. “You got to show up every freaking night prepared to battle until the end. Hopefully what we saw the other night (against Maryland) is more the norm for us as we move forward.”