Men's basketball defense the problem against the Wolverines
Coming into Saturday's matchup against the Wolverines, the Spartans' struggling offense had been the main culprit for the squad’s recent lull.
MSU scored just 64 points against Ohio State University, more than 20 points fewer than its season average of 85.9, and registered only 59 points before the extra period in its overtime win against Rutgers.
The Spartans’ offense didn’t see much improvement on Saturday as the squad shot below their season average on field goals for the third straight game. But for head coach Tom Izzo, what hindered the team the most against its rivals in the maize and blue wasn’t struggles on the offensive end, but instead it was a less than stellar defensive output.
“We went into the game with three, four different goals. One was guarding the ball screens, we failed miserably on that,” Izzo said in his postgame press conference.
Earlier this season, sophomore forward Nick Ward was pulled from a game against Rutgers partially because of his defense on ball screens not being good enough for Izzo’s liking. On Saturday, however, Izzo directed the defensive blame at his backcourt.
“You can get the Nick (Ward) controversy out of your minds. It wasn’t Nick’s fault,” Izzo said. “It was our guards. Our guards did not get over those screens; Nick had to help, he steps back, and just not quick enough to get back there.”
Ward and freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. were both faced with this defensive dilemma constantly throughout the game, when they were guarding U-M junior forward Moritz Wagner.
Wagner, who stands at 6-foot-11, torched the Spartans for a career-high 27 points with nine of them coming from beyond the arc.
Wagner connected on three of his four 3-point attempts, with one of his makes a dagger that gave the Wolverines a 57-55 edge with about nine minutes left after the Spartans had finally taken the lead on a 6-0 spurt. U-M never trailed in the game from that point on.
“He is just being dynamic,” Jackson said. “He had a lot of counter for different types of defense. We didn’t cover some of the ball screens the right way, which left him open and got him going.”
Throughout his three seasons in the maize and blue, Wagner has steadily increased his production and become more featured in U-M head coach John Beilein’s offense. After the win over the Spartans, Beilein said Wagner has adjusted to becoming a leading man on offense.
“You have a great sophomore run, you dabble on going to the NBA, and then you come back with almost a whole new team,” Beilein said. “I think what we saw is he had bad games, he was just trying to do too much and he wasn’t doing what brought him there. Shot fakes, driving the ball hard, he was loving only the three, his defense was awful. Now I think he understands that’s not going to work.”
Wagner hasn't been the only player to post a career-high in points on MSU this season. In fact, in all three of the Spartans’ losses a player from the opposing team scored a career-best against them.
Duke senior guard Grayson Allen put up 37 points in the Blue Devils’ win over MSU back in the Champions Classic, and Ohio State junior forward Keita Bates-Diop dropped in 32 points in the Buckeyes’ Jan. 7 victory over the Spartans.
Despite the defensive mishaps throughout the game, the Wolverines shot just 42 percent overall from the floor, and two of U-M’s top-three leading scorers, Charles Matthews and Muhammad Abdur-Rahkman, combined to go 6-of-21 from the field.
But as Izzo alluded to after the loss, stats didn’t tell the whole story.
“I kept looking up at the clock that has all the stats and we were shooting over 50 percent the whole game. They were shooting in the low 30’s the whole game,” Izzo said. “We’re better defensively than a couple of guys played.”