According to Eli Brooks, Michigan basketball enters every game hoping to allow six or fewer made 3-pointers.
The Wolverines were unable to reach that goal on New Year's Eve, when Maryland made 13 of 22 3s (59.1%), including 9 of 11 in the first half. In most games, those numbers would constitute a loss for the opponent.
But Michigan won with relative ease, thanks to the offense, which scored 84 points, and its 2-point defense, which forced Maryland to shoot 15 of 36 (41.4%) on 2s.
The staggering difference between the Terrapins' ability to score inside the 3-point line and behind the line has become a key characteristic of the Wolverines' defense.
Michigan is allowing opponents to make 38.2% of their 2s, which ranks third-best nationally. But Michigan has allowed opposing teams to shoot 37% on 3s — No. 274 overall.
“We did an okay job throughout the season so far, but I think we can make that next step," Brooks said Friday. "We had a few glitches in a couple games that just allowed them to get over the mark that we want them to have from the 3-point line. But all in all, I think we’ve done a good job of seeing the actions and recognizing different actions and getting the hand-ball contest."
Michigan's defense ranks No. 32 in adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom.com. But how the Wolverines have gotten there is interesting.
After years of prioritizing 3-point defense, Michigan has slipped. Last season, the Wolverines' primary focus appeared to be on limiting 3s; 28.7% of opponents' field goals were 3s, seventh-lowest in the nation, and those teams shot 32.3% from beyond the arc.
Through the first eight games this season, those percentages have both spiked.
“I felt like we’ve defended the 3-point line pretty well," Chaundee Brown said. "Not so good last game, I think they hit 13 3s. But we drill it every day in practice, just knowing the scouting report, knowing who the shooters are, especially in transition by running the guy off the line and actually being in our gaps and helping one another out.”
So how has Michigan's overall defense remained stout? Because of how stingy the Wolverines have been inside the 3-point line.
Michigan's 2-point defense is on pace to finish ahead of the team's 2-point defense in 2017-18 and 2018-19, when the Wolverines fielded elite defenses and finished third and second, respectively, in defensive efficiency.
It has been incredibly difficult for teams to score at the rim against Michigan — or anywhere else inside the 3-point line.
Maryland struggled to generate open shots and could not consistently get dribble penetration. When the Terrapins did get to the rim, they were often denied: The Wolverines had six blocks, five in the first half, and only ceded six free throws.
Much of it has to do with Michigan's personnel.
"In a lot of cases, coaches get a lot of press or whatever for trying to come up with schemes, and we all try to come up with offense and defensive schemes, but at the end of the day, it’s about the guys on the floor," assistant coach Saddi Washington said Friday. "Coach Juwan has put a huge emphasis on just competing at both ends of the floor."
The Wolverines have an "elite" on- and off-ball defender in Brooks, who Washington labeled "the orchestrator of our defense."
"He knows his spot and where everybody else should be," Washington said.
Michigan also has a trio of wings in Franz Wagner ("an elite level two-way guy," according to Washington), Brown and Isaiah Livers, who are all capable on- and off-ball defenders.
Anchoring the defense, meanwhile, is 7-foot-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson. Dickinson has provided rim protection, averaging 1.6 blocks per game, and is a major reason why Michigan has a team block rate of 12.7% — the program's highest since 2008, when the Wolverines had eventual first-round draft pick Ekpe Udoh patrolling the paint.
“(Dickinson's) 7-foot-2, so it’s hard shooting over a 7-2 person especially when you’re going to the hole and you see him right there," Brown said. "I feel like Hunter has been doing a really good job defending on the perimeter as well. I know that some teams in the past think he has slow feet, but he doesn’t in my mind. He’s been really working on it. He’s long with as well, long arms, he has a really good contest rate, things like that.”
It also helps that the players, according to Brown, focus on as many details as possible: They make sure to help if a teammate is beat off the dribble, try to contest on every shot, watch enough film to know opposing players' tendencies and pay attention to the coaching staff's scouting reports.
Michigan is cognizant of the challenge of Sunday night's contest against Northwestern. The Wildcats are shooting 41.4% on 3s. The 3-pointer is the key component of Northwestern's offense, which means the Wolverines have an opportunity to fix their 3-point defense.
"We know that they’re shooters," Brown said. "We’ve watched film on them already. We have to just know who likes to shoot and who doesn’t and run them off the line and help each other out by being a help defense.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball 3-point defense stinks. How is it winning easily?