It's a good sign when any college basketball team is in company with the Duke men's basketball team.
And for Michigan coach John Beilein, his team is. The Wolverines and Blue Devils are the only two teams that have held Michigan State to less than 60 points this season.
The Wolverines stuck to mainly man-to-man defense in their 60-59 win over the Spartans on Tuesday night. Early in the game, Michigan switched into Beilein's 1-3-1 zone, and Michigan State senior forward Draymond Green sunk a 3-pointer from the left baseline. Later in the first half, Michigan switched from man-to-man into a zone midway through a possession and again the Spartans drained a triple.
Beilein uses his zone mainly as a changeup for opponents so they can't establish a rhythm, but even without using the zone too much, the Spartans never found theirs. And so for most of the game, the Wolverines took on the Spartans man-to-man, and for a team that was undersized against its opponent, the tactic worked.
"Sometimes it just works out," senior guard Zack Novak said. "We just fought in there."
With a smaller starting lineup, the fighting seemed sometimes futile in the paint as the Spartans outrebounded Michigan, 31-18. Though, Beilein said that was of design as the Wolverines decided before the game that instead of crashing the offensive boards, they would send three people back on defense during each possession to keep Michigan State from running.
Which, again worked for the Wolverines. Michigan State scored only two fast-break points and never really got into the Spartans’ standard transition game.
"We weren’t trying to get offensive rebounds," Beilein said. "We were trying to take away their transition game. There’s a method to our madness. … That rebounding margin really is not indicative of who won the game. We let them have that to get something else."
That "something else" was the solid team defense that Michigan played.
Their help defense was all over the floor. But it was impressive on Green. With the different looks the Michigan defense gave him, Green couldn't get comfortable in the paint. He finished with just seven points and five turnovers. Even against Duke he scored 13 points and grabbed 18 boards.
And so it felt good for several of the players that they won the game on a defensive possession -- when Green got two shots up, and their strength in rebounding was a key factor. Beilein called their final minutes of defense outstanding, and it was what sealed the game.
"I think we were just in spots and we had energy," senior guard Stu Douglass said. "We give up a lot of size. … We knew it was going to be a tough game from that aspect so we had to pick it up in other areas."