It comes in a hurry, this Michigan basketball defense, it comes from everywhere, too, and if that’s all the Wolverines had to offer, they would still be a tournament team.
But they dribble and pass and shoot, as well. They get buckets. Lots of them, also from lots of places. And when it’s all clicking, as it was Tuesday night at Crisler Center against Wisconsin, look out.
U-M put the college basketball world on blast, blowing out the Badgers 77-54. Though the score doesn’t begin to capture what happened.
All the Wolverines did was put a 43-6 run on Wisconsin, from late in the first half until midway through the second, overwhelming one of the best teams in college basketball.
So dominating was the performance, so utterly soul-snatching was the defense that when Wisconsin point guard, D’Mitrik Trice, finally hit a corner 3 to cut the lead to 31, Juwan Howard turned toward his bench, lowered his masked and barked.
U-M’s coach was irritated his team missed an assignment. That should tell you everything.
About what kind of program Howard is building, about what he expects from his players, about the team he has before him, a mix of transfers, a 7-foot freshman, attacking guards and a couple of long, skilled, ultra-modern wings who play both ends of the floor.
A team that few saw coming. At least not this.
Yet, here they are, the best-looking team in the Big Ten, quickly becoming one of the best teams in the country.
Gonzaga has the most spectacular offense. Baylor may have the most bruising defense. I’m not sure anyone has the kind of combination U-M does.
It starts with the wings, Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner. Both can shoot, score off the bounce, get to the rim, pass, and defend. Really defend.
The length helps. So does the anticipation. But the effort is what astounds. The same is true for everyone else on the team.
These Wolverines don’t just play hard, they play ferociously, and they do it from the opening tip.
Livers credits a practice drill called “The Hunger Games,” after the books and movies.
“There are no fouls,” he said. “(You are) fighting for everything you get … only the strong survive.”
Howard was later asked more about the drills and didn’t want to elaborate, except to say:
“(It’s to) develop habits. It’s gonna force you to have a carryover into a game-like situation. It’s for competitors only.”
Then he chuckled.
Wisconsin found out how unfunny this truly is Tuesday. They looked stunned. Then deflated. Then confused.
Trice had nowhere to go. Neither did Brad Davison, or Nate Reuvers, or Micah Potter, the meat of a roster that’s experienced, savvy and skilled.
That U-M sped them up and turned them over was startling. But they did. Again and again. And when Wisconsin did find open looks, they rushed.
On the other end, there was Livers, pulling up from 3 in transition, and Mike Smith, the point guard, slipping into the lane, and Wagner, who has found his own pace again, pump-faking in the corner, driving the baseline and dunking.
When a player found a good shot, he passed it up for a better one. Inside and out. Around the perimeter. Patiently. Forcefully.
For a team with so many new faces it’s astounding to watch them play as if they’ve been together for years. Howard deserves the credit, even though he likes to credit his staff and players.
He did again after the game. Sending all praise to his players. Talking about how they are growing up before his eyes. Downplaying his role other than to admit that he wants them to have fun, that his coach at U-M, Steve Fisher, always stressed the importance of that.
Compete but have fun.
“They are supposed to have fun. Because … why not?” he said. “They are young in age. They are not professionals. They are not getting paid. You don’t get these days back.”
No, you don’t.
Howard has always been humble this way, deflecting, looking outward, while keeping his role and influence in house. And that’s fine.
But don’t let that obscure what he has done since he arrived, what he’s built during these difficult and disorienting times is worth savoring.
Because teams don’t come along like this every year. Teams don’t build 40-point leads against the Badgers. They don’t follow blowouts against good teams with the dismantling that happened Tuesday night unless something is cooking.
Yes, there are still a few tests out there. Iowa, for one. Illinois, for another. And since the conference is as deep and talented as it has been in years, almost anyone might trip them up. Even the best teams have to get a fortunate bounce once in a while to survive.
There will be nights when the shots don’t fall. If that happens, though, U-M will still have a chance.
Because of its defense. Because of the display we saw again Tuesday. Though Livers first saw it last summer, when the team was finally allowed to practice and get physical, to bump, as Howard likes to tell them.
“(It was) a scrimmage,” he said, “and (I was) on the opposite team (from) Franz, Chaundee (Brown), Eli (Brooks), Austin (Davis) trying to get a shot.”
“I was like, ‘dang.’ That’s when I noticed.”
Well everyone has noticed now. And should have noticed this isn’t a one-off. Tuesday night is who these Wolverines are. Maybe not 40 points better than the rest of the Big Ten, but it’s most complete team.
They made a statement. Here’s betting they have several more to make before it’s over.