Rosemont, Ill. — Consider it identity by necessity.
The departures of uber-talented big man Moritz Wagner, do-it-all guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and 3-point specialist Duncan Robinson have left the Michigan Wolverines searching for a way to replace the offensive production that left with them.
With the regular season less than a month away, Michigan coach John Beilein said his team is a “work in progress” offensively and will need to lean on a familiar force that fueled the Wolverines last year — their stingy defense.
“It may have to be (that way) for a while, but who knows where it will be? It's ahead of our offense right now,” Beilein said Thursday at Big Ten media day. “I'm trying to coach (freshman guard) Dave DeJulius, 'Come on, you got to do this better. You got to do this.' Wait a minute, he's got (junior guard) Zavier Simpson in his grill for two hours. That's hard to do. There are some great players that got shut down by that guy.
“I think the defense will be really important, and it's ahead of our offense right now today.”
Michigan ranked among the nation’s best in several defensive categories last year en route to one of the most successful seasons in program history.
The Wolverines ranked No. 3 in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency last season — allowing 90.5 points per 100 possessions — and eighth in scoring defense (63.3 points).
They were also one of the best teams at taking care of ball — ranked No. 8 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.54) — which helped prevent opponents’ fast-break chances and limited second-chance opportunities by posting a 77.6 defensive rebounding percentage, which ranked in the top 25.
So, while Michigan is faced with overcoming the losses of three of its top four scorers and introducing five freshmen into the system, it returns arguably two of the best defenders in the Big Ten in redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews and Simpson.
And make no mistake, Matthews and Simpson have no intention of letting anybody cut corners at that end of the floor.
“I think there are a lot more active voices on the team than last year and the previous year, so we definitely feel like we can strive in that area and protect our strengths,” Simpson said.
“Charles and I definitely set the intensity, not even on defense but just in general with our voices. Guys look up to us because we've been there before and they just want to see the things that we're doing. We practice the hardest so when you're looking up to your role model and they're practicing the hardest, it just all comes into play.”
Matthews said this year’s group is more athletic and will hopefully be better at shot-blocking with junior center Jon Teske manning the middle. There’s also more defensive flexibility and versatility on the roster, with players like freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, sophomore Isaiah Livers and Matthews able to slide up and down and play multiple positions, which will give Michigan the option to mix and match by going with a big or small lineup.
Matthews added that the keys to last season’s defensive success is the team was comprised of prideful guys who took their individual matchup personally, which prompted a desire for them to lock in on that end. But most importantly, they also had a de facto defensive coordinator in assistant coach Luke Yaklich.
Yaklich routinely set benchmarks and stressed certain categories in which he wanted his team to excel, like defensive rebounding percentage. And while Simpson didn’t want to “give the secret ingredients away,” he said Yaklich is demanding and expecting more in practice all while “charting a lot of stats that you wouldn't even think is a statistic.”
"He has definitely increased the marks and created a lot of things that other coaches do not chart. And if they do, it's amazing,” Simpson said. “But he's definitely improving the defense in many ways. He's charting everything, which is good, but we'll see where it goes."
And if this team's defense is able to surpass last year’s, who knows how far Michigan can go? Like the offense, everyone will just have to wait and see.
“That’s a tough one. That team last year was pretty good in a lot of things,” Beilein said. “If they can grow like that team grew and adjust — we had to make major adjustments and we adjusted well. If this team can grow like that, they have a high ceiling.”