ANN ARBOR, Mich. - This might sound strange, but Michigan is the best defensive team in the country.
With only 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines stand alone atop the adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, which determine how many points a team allows per 100 possessions, taking the strength of the opponent into account.
Overall, Virginia and Cincinnati owned the top two defenses in the nation this season, but since both were bounced from the tournament during the opening weekend, the Wolverines are the top defensive unit remaining. It's an incredible achievement for a team that, in 11 years under John Beilein, has never been known as a defensive powerhouse.
Last season, when Michigan made an improbable run to the Sweet 16, it owned the No. 4 overall offense and the No. 69 overall defense. The 2013 team that nearly won a national championship ranked No. 37 on defense.
Beilein's offense has been inconsistent this year, running smoothly at times completely stalling out at others. To make up for the lack of elite firepower, Michigan made an effort to guard.
Defense saves season
The opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a perfect example of Michigan's transformation.
While averaging just 62.5 points in the two games, Michigan cruised past Montana and found a way to knock off an excellent Houston team. It's a misperception that Michigan can't win without 3-point shooting, as the Wolverines are alive despite an 8-30 effort last round.
Even though he finished with 23 points, Michigan did a nice job defending Houston point guard Rob Gray, the centerpiece of the entire team. Gray struggled to get open looks in the first half, and six of his points came on deep, contested jumpers.
Though fouls have been a problem in the NCAA Tournament, what sets Michigan apart is the ability to defend without fouling. It's a staple of Beilein teams.
Almost every player on Michigan's roster improved defensively this season, but the jump from average to elite has been fueled by two new starters.
Zavier Simpson sets the tone on the defensive end. He's always at a size disadvantage, but he makes up for it with quickness and good instincts. Simpson is an elite perimeter defender, and even though he doesn't pile up steals, he has very active hands.
When Gray put his head down and drove to the basket Saturday, Simpson moved his feet and defended without fouling, and that ultimately allowed Michigan to overcome a poor offensive effort.
The other key cog in Michigan's defense is Charles Matthews, who hasn't played particularly well on offense since December, but didn't let that effect his efforts on defense.
Matthews doesn't block shots or rack up steals, but he's often been asked to guard the opponent's best player this season. Matthews spent a lot of time guarding Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. for Michigan State and Vincent Edwards for Purdue. His length and athleticism help him match up with almost any shooting guard or small forward.
Simpson and Matthews know their roles on this team, and that has helped Michigan turn into a stout defensive unit.
Duncan Robinson's improvement
Several players have stepped up defensively this year, but nobody has improved as much as Duncan Robinson.
When he arrived at Michigan three years ago, Robinson was a spot-up 3-point shooter, and that was all. He couldn't do much else on the offensive end, but his defense was the true liability.
There were times over the last two seasons in which Robinson couldn't be on the floor because teams exploited him on the defensive end. He was a step too slow and even struggled as a help-side defender.
Now, Robinson has turned into a respectable on-ball defender, and he's very good off the ball. Robinson moves his feet to stay in front of driving ball handlers and has become one of the best players on the team at stepping in to take a charge when a teammate gets beat.
When he has an off shooting night, Robinson is still a key player for Michigan because he contributes in other areas. A year ago, that would have sounded ridiculous.
Robinson's improvement on the defensive end is the most impressive aspect of Michigan's overall transformation. He'll need to guard and rebound if Michigan hopes to survive Texas A&M in the Sweet 16.
Matchup with Texas A&M
By the numbers, Texas A&M isn't an elite offensive team, ranking No. 67 in the country, according to KenPom. But A&M is coming off an 86-point performance against North Carolina, and with all five starters back in the lineup -- following a year of injuries and suspensions -- this the team is much more formidable that the raw numbers suggest.
The Aggies are also an excellent defensive team, ranking No. 8 in the country and fifth among teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
Unless Michigan enjoys an unexpected offensive explosion against Texas A&M, it'll be up to the defense to carry the torch once again.
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