How Michigan Defense Met the “Perfect Challenge” to Return to Dominant Lanes

Juwan Howard usually shows Michigan his defensive numbers the day after a game. After Sunday’s game against Ohio State, in which the Wolverines allowed 87 points, Howard waited.

“I held it and held it in my back pocket until I thought it was good to inspire a better defensive effort than what we gave against Ohio State,” said Howard said.

When he finally revealed the numbers and broadcast the tape, the message was received. Michigan dominated defensively Thursday against Iowa, stifling the nation’s best offense in a 79-57 win.

Michigan’s defensive game plan was to defend Luka Garza, the nation’s top scorer, one-on-one and stick with Iowa’s multitude of 3-point accurate shooters. Simple to understand; very difficult to perform.

It was essentially Michigan’s approach in last season’s first meeting with Iowa, and while Michigan won, Garza scored 44 of Iowa’s 91 points. Garza lost 33 in the rematch, won by the Hawkeyes.

Michigan did not have Hunter Dickinson at the time. In practice leading up to Thursday, Howard whistled whenever Dickinson moved defensively. Even though it didn’t result in a basket for the Michigan Boy Scout team, Howard knew Garza would be up to the task.

Dickinson, a freshman, made it known at the start of the match that he was ready for the challenge to keep his friend. And when he went to the bench with foul issues, his teammates Austin Davis and Brandon Johns Jr. also proved capable.

“Austin and Brandon did a fantastic job fighting each other – trying to make every take hard, challenge every shot, do whatever they can to… make Garza work for every bucket.”

Garza shot 6 for 19 from the field and scored 16 points, 11 below his season average. The Iowa offense forces most opponents to choose their poison. If the question posed Thursday was whether to slow Garza down or limit the Iowa 3, Michigan’s answer was “yes.” The Hawkeyes were only 6 for 19 at depth.

Iowa’s 57 points were the lowest on the schedule since scoring 53 in the 2019 Big Ten tournament, also an unbalanced loss to Michigan.

After Thursday’s loss, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had no interest in discussing the details. When asked what led to his team’s offensive dysfunction, he simply replied, “It was not a dysfunction.” Iowa, fourth in the country in assists rate, has just four assists against Michigan. When asked about the cause of the low number, McCaffery said, “This question has been asked and answered.”

Michigan forced the Iowa perimeter players to score the dribble. The Hawkeyes had some success in the first half, but couldn’t keep it up. Dickinson and Davis (three fouls each) allowed a few fouls on Garza, but Iowa has only shot 11 free throws so far.

Against Ohio State, Howard thought his team “was more concerned with scoring than making saves.” For a Michigan team that had proven to be an elite defensively for much of the season, that was unacceptable.

“You know Coach Howard wasn’t playing about that,” Michigan senior forward Isaiah Livers said. “Yeah, we came out of Columbus with a ‘W’ but our defensive numbers were terrible. We walked through them, looked at each other and shook our heads, because that’s not us.

“We knew Iowa was going to step into our home, the top ranked Big Ten team, and we knew it was the perfect challenge. It was as if it was done on purpose to prove ourselves. We have risen to the challenge. “

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