Oklahoma State entered Friday’s match-up with Michigan boasting the nation’s top offense. The Cowboy attack was triggered by one of the nation’s top point guards in Jawun Evans. His talents were accentuated by dangerous three point shooters like Phil Forte, Jeffrey Carroll, and Leyton Hammonds. When deployed together on the floor they unleashed a dynamic ball screen attack in the half court and a devastating transition game.
It would have taken a perfect plan with perfect execution to stop all of that. While Michigan has certainly improved defensively over the course of the season, expecting the Wolverines to slow down that much firepower would have been akin to ice skating uphill.
Michigan assistant Billy Donlon was the man charged with formulating Michigan’s defensive strategy. Speaking with the media after the Wolverines’ 92-91 victory he acknowledged that fans may be questioning whether there actually was a strategy, but he made it clear that there was. In a nutshell the plan was to choose one aspect of the Cowboy attack to limit, and then live with the vulnerabilities resulted elsewhere. The choice he made was to tell his players to NOT help off shooters when defending the Cowboys ball screen action.
“Evans is really good,” Donlon said. “You’re not going to guard (Oklahoma State’s pick & roll action) perfect. It’s like playing the old Princeton (offense). You can take away their threes, you can take away their back cut, but you’re not going to do both all game. So we felt like if they throw it to the rim a couple of times and get a few lay-ups, it’s going to look bad on TV, but we’re not going to tag from Forte and give up that throwback three that he loves so much. That was just kind of what we decided to do. I know they still scored 91, but just know the analytics with Coach (Beilein) was Forte gets threes they win.”
“We said coming into the game they make 9.5 threes per night,” Donlon later added. “If we could keep them to six or less, we felt good about it. I know they made eight, but as I said, I’m not counting the last two. They banked in a thirty-footer and then made one at the buzzer. We kind of said, ‘hey, ‘we’re going to try to win at the three-point line. Defending it and making it.’ And we were able to do that. But no question, they’re elite. Give our guys credit because early when they did a good job with our offense, there was transition every time with a pro. Transition defense every time with a pro. Give our guys a lot of credit for how they hung in there that way.”
One of the reasons Michigan to hang in was D.J. Wilson's play at center. The adjustment was made necessary by Moritz Wagner’s foul trouble and general struggles, but it wound up leading to an increase in the team’s effectiveness on both ends of the floor.
“Credit D.J. when we went to the small lineup,” said Donlon. “I’d love to do the breakdown of when D.J. was at the five defensively, how good we were. That really helped us. That probably helped us win the game.”
“D.J.’s defense… his blocks… he is just faster and more athletic at the rim. It’s really hard to try to play regular ball screen rules with their three-point shooting and with Evans. It’s really hard. So D.J.’s athleticism was really the difference. That’s not really a knock on anybody (on Michigan’s team). It’s a compliment to D.J. and what he can do.”
Playing in the middle hasn’t always been high on Wilson’s wish list, but his position coach Saddi Washington has noticed a shift in his big man’s mindset this year.
“I think he has really done a great job of just embracing the challenge,” said Washington. “Somebody commented earlier that he didn’t want to play the five last year. Whatever you’ve got to do to be on the floor to help us win, that’s where we need him to be. I think D.J. has really embraced the fact that he’s not going to put himself in a hole position wise because him being out on the floor affects our team in a tremendous way because of his versatility. He can guard multiple positions, he can score inside and outside, and it just changes the dynamics of this team.”
“I think he was seeing some success early in the year, it really allowed him to see his value on this team, and he just ran with it all season.”
A season that he just helped extend for at least one more game.