ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) As successful as Michigan has been under John Beilein, the Wolverines have also become a bit predictable.
They’ll shoot well from the perimeter, and they’re an unselfish team that’s difficult to guard because of their superior precision and spacing. On defense, they avoid fouling and don’t force many turnovers – and their opponents are often all too comfortable at that end of the court.
This season, Beilein is hoping to correct some of those defensive problems.
New assistant Billy Donlon, who joined the Michigan staff this offseason after a six-year run as head coach at Wright State, is the man Beilein is turning to for defensive expertise. The Wolverines barely made the NCAA Tournament last season but return plenty of experience – and they could certainly take a big step forward in 2016-17 if Donlon can help them become a stingier group.
“I am giving him a lot of responsibility,” Beilein said at media day Monday. “My eye, and the detail that we do in offense, I think he’s got a similar eye for defense, and we’re trying to combine that without confusing everybody.”
When Michigan reached the NCAA title game in 2013, the Wolverines ranked No. 1 in the nation in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency stat. They were No. 3 the following season, when they went to the Elite Eight.
Defensively, it’s been a different story. Michigan was 88th in 2014, 99th in 2015 and 95th last season. That’s bad enough to be a real problem in seasons when the offense is merely good and not outstanding.
“You can’t really move the offensive needle,” Donlon said. “I think the players are wanting to also move the defensive needle some, and I think they recognize if we do that, what could happen.”
Michigan is rarely aggressive on the offensive boards, and its defensive problems have only fueled the criticism that comes with being more of a finesse team.
“We know people like to call us soft,” senior Zak Irvin said. “It is a mindset to be tough. We’ve got to do the gritty things, and we’re working on that each day.”
One of the trademarks of Michigan’s defense has been a lack of fouling. Many coaches would be happy with that, but it’s fair to wonder if the Wolverines have been operating at too much of an extreme. Michigan averaged 15.5 fouls a game last season. Donlon’s Wright State team averaged 22.
Could Michigan benefit from a little more aggressiveness on defense, even if it leads to more fouls?
“You look at some of our guys’ stats, some guys didn’t average two fouls a game, so that’s a little bit too cautious,” Beilein said. “Somehow we’ve got to take Bill’s defense where they fouled more, and still stay out of the one-and-one and still keep our best players on the floor.”
Beilein’s program isn’t about to undergo any sort of overhaul. His accomplishments at Michigan include the Final Four in 2013, as well as Big Ten titles in 2012 and 2014. But the last couple seasons have been more of a struggle, thanks in part to injuries to some key players. The Wolverines missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and were eliminated in the round of 64 last year.
He had to shake up his staff a bit this offseason because Bacari Alexander was hired to lead the Detroit Titans and Wisconsin-Milwaukee hired LaVall Jordan.
In Donlon, Beilein hopes he’s found someone who can help the Wolverines in an area where they’ve been lacking.
“He is a head coach that is now as the assistant coach,” Beilein said. “He’s got a lot of the head coach qualities already, where he’s strong with his command. … I can tell by our kids’ eyes, they are learning from him, they love listening to him.”
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