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Michigan's vastly improved defense will make it a tough out all month

Michigan guard Duncan Robinson (22) and Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman (23) battle for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal college basketball game, Saturday, March 3, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

A Michigan program known for its breathtaking offense under John Beilein is finding a different way to win this season.

The Wolverines are one win away from a second straight Big Ten tournament title largely because of their airtight defense.

Michigan held second-ranked Michigan State to 38.4 percent shooting on Saturday afternoon in a 75-64 Big Ten semifinals victory. The Wolverines rotated crisply, closed out on shooters and kept the Spartans out of the lane and off the offensive boards, setting up a matchup with either third-seeded Purdue or seventh-seeded Penn State in Sunday’s Big Ten title game.

Strong defense was necessary to keep Michigan competitive during a first half in which star center Moritz Wagner missed all seven shots he attempted from the field. Wagner responded to score 14 of his 15 points after halftime to help the Wolverines break open a tight game and snap the Spartans’ 13-game win streak.

Saturday’s victory was Michigan’s second straight dominant defensive effort of the tournament. The Wolverines held Nebraska to 1-for-20 shooting during a 13-minute first-half stretch during Friday’s quarterfinals, enabling them to open up an 18-point lead that proved insurmountable for the cold-shooting Huskers.

If Michigan (27-7, 13-5) can continue to defend as well as it has during its current eight-game win streak, the Wolverines will be a tough out in the NCAA tournament. They still have multiple weapons on offense too, from Wagner’s inside-out proficiency, to Charles Matthews’ slashing ability, to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson bombing away from behind the arc.

Michigan could conceivably claim a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament and a friendly regional in Detroit if it wins Sunday’s Big Ten title game. Michigan State’s hopes of earning a No. 1 seed are probably dead, but the Spartans still have a chance to land a No. 2.

While Michigan State desperately wanted to avenge its 82-72 regular season loss to Michigan, the Spartans shouldn’t panic over Saturday’s loss. The Wolverines are just a difficult matchup for them as Nick Ward is not quick enough to deal with Wagner and the Michigan’s guards were able to turn the corner driving at their Michigan State counterparts.

Here’s a small silver lining for Michigan State: The Spartans can’t face the Wolverines again unless it’s in San Antonio at the Final Four.

 

Only four times all season has Michigan State lost a game. Twice it has come at the hands of the Spartans’ most hated rivals.

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!