Last season’s Michigan team was a great one. They were star-studded, began the year by winning their first 16 games, finished with 25 regular season wins and made their way through the NCAA Tournament to the title game. It was a great season by all measures as the offense carried the talented Wolverines to massive success.
However, it was always Michigan’s defense that gave them issues — when there were issues, that is. Michigan’s defense, unlike the offense, was not elite or even that good last season. Will it change next year?
There are reasons to think the defense will improve next year. Michigan’s two biggest losses from last season are Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Both of these players were terrific; Burke was the best player in the country, and Hardaway was first team All-Big Ten. They will most definitely be missed as they were the two leading scorers, combining for over 33 points a game.
But for all their talent, neither Burke nor Hardaway were good defenders. Burke’s defensive rating was 99.1, while Hardaway’s was 100.1, both very mediocre. Neither were particularly terrible on the defensive end, but they were certainly liable to getting beat off the dribble by good guards. Michigan will miss their offensive contributions, but defensively, Burke and Hardaway will not be missed.
But teams don’t just get better by subtraction. John Beilein has to be able to plug players in on defense who would actually be better than Burke and Hardaway. A lot of Hardaway’s old minutes will go to Nik Stauskas and five-star incoming freshman Zakarie Irvin.
Stauskas was not a good perimeter defender last season, maybe even worse than Hardaway. But in his second season, there is a case to be made that he can become an improved defender. Irvin had scouts raving over his athleticism.A good defender has athleticism combined with focus, basketball intelligence and effort. Irvin has the most difficult aspect already and has the potential to be very good defensively with good coaching and strong effort.
Burke’s primary replacement will most likely be freshman point guard Derrick Walton, who is known for his on-ball defense and should be an immediate improvement for the Wolverines from Burke defensively.
While perimeter defense is important, protecting the paint well is what makes great defenses so special. The Wolverines should be better at that next season.
Although Mitch McGary had a big role and massive impact in the NCAA Tourney, he was the backup most of the season to Jordan Morgan, who was the more stable defender for Michigan. That said, McGary was a better defender, with by far the best defensive rating on the team: 90.2.
He is so much more athletic and mobile, allowing him to both control the paint and move with quicker ball handlers on the pick and roll. His limiting factors were always his knack for picking up early fouls and his terrible mental lapses. Those are both characteristics of an inexperienced, brash, young player, but as a sophomore, fans should expect a more stable, dependable McGary.
If McGary can combine his great defensive abilities with a more mature approach, he will be a beast defensively. Morgan will still be there to come off the bench along with the unheralded Jon Horford, who can be very effective when healthy.
With a revamped frontcourt and a more experienced interior defense, Michigan’s defense should be a bit better than last year.
You can follow Alex Dale on Twitter at @alexdalecbb.