Kornacki: How 'Billy Ball' Gave Michigan's Defense Some Real Teeth
Billy Donlon

March 16, 2017

By Steve Kornacki

INDIANAPOLIS -- John Beilein called it "Billy Ball" while addressing his team in the locker room following a victory en route to winning the Big Ten Tournament championship last week.

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The University of Michigan basketball coach was referring to Billy Donlon, whom he hired one year ago with an eye on Donlon coordinating the Wolverines' less-than-successful defense.

"This is a team that used to, when we were still trying to figure out 'Billy Ball,' (had opponents) shooting 50 percent from three!" Beilein told the Wolverines in a passionate speech during which he waved his arms and mimicked defensive stances. "We were going to break every record in America. But you guys have really bought into getting out and guarding somebody!"

Beilein also provided Donlon an accomplice to get his point across. It was photo of a pit bull mix that has lovingly been nicknamed "Toother" by the players, and that vicious canine is posted next to the team's objectives board prior to each and every game.

Still, the essence of the success comes down to a "trust" Donlon says the players have in one another.

It was the improved defense -- particularly against three-point attempts -- that got Michigan (24-11) competitive and good enough to beat three of the top four seeds in the conference tournament.

Wisconsin didn't score a bucket in the second half of the Big Ten title game until 8:04 had ticked off the clock, and a one-point lead became an impenetrable 10-point lead for Michigan in that time.

"They didn't score a field goal until that long into the second half," said Donlon, "and that's incredible. Wisconsin has a terrific system, terrific players, and are really well coached. But our players were dialed in and really, really executed the game plan."

Next up for the Wolverines is Oklahoma State, which leads the high-scoring Big 12 with 85.5 points per game and features two of that conference's top six three-point shooters in 5-foot-11 Phil Forte and 6-foot-6 Jeffrey Carroll. Point guard Jawun Evans and forward Leyton Hammonds (6-8) also shoot their share from behind the arc.

So, Friday afternoon's (March 17) NCAA Tournament opener here will issue another big challenge for Michigan. Donlon said first-year Cowboys coach Brad Underwood runs some of the offense legendary Wolverines coach Johnny Orr did with players like Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard.

"Forte hasn't gotten enough credit for his ability to get by you on the dribble," said Donlon. "He's fast, and so he gets great separation on his cuts and screens. So, you can't give him space. And then he can make it consistently from 27 feet.

"So, he stretches you, and then they have a point guard who sees the floor as well as (Evans) does, and then Hammonds and Carroll. They have four legit guys that can really go score, and Brad's offense is outstanding. Some of it is actually old Johnny Orr stuff.

"We have to do a good job of not letting them have direct passes and getting back in transition. And they also are unbelievable on the glass. So, when they do miss, they get 'em. Their transition game, ability to make threes and rebounding are really at a high level."

Oklahoma State offers a distinct challenge, but the Wolverines are now up to defending explosive teams.

Once the Wolverines got comfortable with his concepts and began working together in sync, "Billy Ball" began bouncing opponents. Michigan is on a 10-2 run with the only losses coming in overtime (at Minnesota) and on a miracle play (at Northwestern).

"Understanding the urgency with which you have to close out to the ball within possessions was something that grew for us throughout the entire season," said Donlon.

"I also think the guys realized what our potential would be if we became a great defensive team. They saw that, and the older players led the way. And it's not just the seniors who play (regularly). Sean Lonergan and Andrew Dakich were very vocal about it in practices and did an unbelievable job."

Lonergan and Dakich are tough-minded seniors. They're part of the scout team in practices, portraying opponents in order to give teammates a good dress rehearsal.

"You saw us struggle early in the year to get stops." said Lonergan. "I think there was a tendency to ball-watch on defense, and so you're not moving as quickly as you should when the ball's passed. Coach Donlon has spearheaded getting guys to move as the ball's moving and anticipate.

"(In practice) we just try to be a voice for him to help him institute that change. Being seniors, we have a role to lead, and in practice we are the guys they are trying to run off the line. If you give me or 'Dock' an open look, we tend to let you know about it. The better they got at this defense, the fewer open shots I got in practice."

Donlon photo
Donlon at practice Thursday (March 16) in Indianapolis

It was all about putting some teeth into the defense, and that's where the growling dog mascot came into play.

"We bought into Toother and it's kind of changed our season a little bit," said swingman Zak Irvin. "It's kind of funny, but at the same point that is what we're going to do. We've got to have that 'dog' in us, and I think we've shown it since that game."

"That game" was the home loss to Ohio State that dropped the Wolverines to 4-6 in the Big Ten.

Opponents shot .518 from the field and .489 behind the arc in the first nine conference games. They shot .447 overall and .273 on three-pointers in the final nine Big Ten regular-season encounters.

How much of the turnaround has been tenacity and how much has it been playing smart defense?

"I think it's a mix," said Irvin. "It's having a pride in stopping your man, being in the stance and finishing plays. Once we switched that in our minds, it's changed the whole season."

I asked Irvin to describe Donlon's approach.

"Unpredictable would probably be the word for Bill D," said Irvin, leaning back and smiling. "You never know what you're going to get from him. He's a great coach, a great guy, and really knows how to get us amped up."

Writing "STREET FIGHT" (before home win over Illinois) and "NOT TODAY" (before beating Purdue in the tourney) on locker room walls is one thing, but Donlon's approach to teaching a way of truly challenging the three-point shot is what makes the Wolverines tough to beat these days.

"He's doing a great job of emphasizing running teams off the (three-point) line," said forward-center D.J. Wilson, "and making them get tough twos. We bought in."

Donlon said part of the reason the Wolverines turned it around was due to a defensive principle he believes.

"If you really work at your defense," said Donlon, "the second and third times you play people your defense should be better. That was really proven in the tournament, when we played Illinois a third time, Purdue the second time and Wisconsin the third time.

"You know their tendencies and what you have to do. But the biggest word on defense is trust, and whatever your plan is to defend, you are all on a string out there together. If one person doesn't trust that string and breaks it, then it's really hard to stay connected defensively. But we did that and had that trust in one another."

That "trust" came for their relationships.

Donlon said: "Their togetherness inside the locker room, on the court, and even outside of basketball is really, really special, and it's a credit to the culture of Coach Beilein and (assistant coach) Jeff (Meyer), who has been here a while. The people who have been around the program a long time have developed this -- people like (director of program personnel) Chris Hunter and the players who have been here before this group."

Guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said: "It all starts with our team chemistry, and in order to have that you have to be close to your teammates. We have that closeness, and that's what really helped us in the Big Ten Tournament -- that trust."

Point guard Derrick Walton Jr. said the Wolverines "had a great practice" Thursday and have readied themselves for a team that -- much like themselves -- has many three-point threats.

"It spreads us out," said Walton, "but I think that makes us a lot more hungry on that side of the ball -- knowing that they are really dangerous on that side of the ball.

"We just really want to lock in and run those guys off the line and make sure we're keyed in to our personal matchups in the scouting report. That brings a different kind of focus. The games where we've played well, we've had the best focus possible."

Trust and "Toother" have turned "Billy Ball" into winning basketball.

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