Can Ignas Brazdeikis help fuel Michigan’s defensive revolution?

Thirty-point games and championship banners hang from the backs of Ignas Brazdeikis‘ eyelids. He sees outrageous success in high definition each time he closes them to meditate inside a chilly Michigan dorm room.

Brazdeikis learned to meditate from his father, Sigis, the Lithuanian fighter who moved his family across the Atlantic shortly after Ignas was born. When young Iggy was moving 1,000 mph in a world that couldn’t keep up, he saw no value in slowing down to visualize the future. (“It was just, you know, sitting there,” he says.) Now that the roles are reversed and the Michigan Wolverines freshman is hustling to keep up with his new world, there is almost nothing at which Brazdeikis won’t try to get better.

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“I just see everything I could imagine, and I see it going well,” Brazdeikis says about the regular meditation sessions he adopted this year. “Literally everything.”

The real world has not been much different so far for the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Lithuanian-Canadian newcomer, who seemed to emerge this autumn as a fully formed starter and offensive game-changer for the fifth-ranked Wolverines. Prior to Michigan’s defeat at Wisconsin this past weekend, the Wolverines had not lost and Brazdeikis, the team’s leading scorer, had been held below double digits only twice.

Brazdeikis bounced back Tuesday night in a 59-57 win over Minnesota, posting a double-double with an aggressive, productive second half. After being held scoreless against the Badgers and missing his first seven shots of the game Tuesday, head coach John Beilein still put the ball in the hands of his only freshman starter with 30 seconds left in a tie game. Brazdeikis missed a lay-up before tipping the rebound to senior Charles Matthews for a buzzer-beating jumper. The miss did not shake his confidence nor the trust his team puts in him.

“That means a lot to me,” Brazdeikis said. “They trust in me. I trust in myself. Having that trust gives me the ability to make plays.”

Brazdeikis sees himself — whether his eyes are open or closed — as the best player on whatever court his shoes touch, and he is not shy about sharing those feelings with anyone who asks. That unabashed confidence does not, however, diminish the budding star’s insatiable thirst to improve.

“There has always been an understanding with Iggy that he’s not where he wants to be,” assistant coach Luke Yaklich says. “There is a desire to learn and to grow.”

It says as much about the recent evolution of Michigan’s basketball program as it does about Brazdeikis that his top priority since landing in Ann Arbor this summer has been playing better defense.

Yaklich arrived at the Crisler Center this summer to find Brazdeikis and his fellow freshmen milling around the lobby, waiting for Michigan’s first official practice of the year. They were joining a group that months earlier came up one win short of a national championship and solidified a new identity thanks in no small part to Yaklich’s relentless pursuit of a relentless defense. In his first year at Michigan, Yaklich helped a program built with John Beilein’s innovative offense redefine itself with the third-ranked adjusted defense in the nation, per KenPom.

“Are you guys ready to get on the floor any play some defense this year?” Yaklich asked the freshmen amid some friendly welcomes and small talk. He wasn’t necessarily expecting an earnest answer.

“I want to be an elite two-way player, Coach,” Brazdeikis said. “You can hold me accountable to that.”

“OK, Iggy,” Yaklich said. “That’s all I need to hear.”

Brazdeikis by then had learned good defense would be non-negotiable if he wanted to step into a significant role for the Wolverines this season. There isn’t a coach in the country who doesn’t at least pay lip service to the idea that a player will ride the bench if he can’t play good defense, but it was his teammates in summer pick-up games who made it clear to Brazdeikis that those aren’t empty words in Ann Arbor.

“For us, it’s kind of a like a disease that spreads when guys play defense,” says sophomore guard Zavier Simpson, who is as responsible for starting that epidemic as anyone in the Michigan locker room.

Simpson is usually the first to hold his teammates accountable if they sidestep a charge or jog to close out on a shooter. A host of returning starters from last year’s Final Four team are quick to join him. For Brazdeikis, it helped that he had peeked at the scouting reports and recruiting sites that pinpointed defense as one of his most glaring weaknesses. He felt he had something to prove.

The first step was physical. Michigan charts the strength of all its players during their time on campus. Brazdeikis walked in the door this past summer with one of the 10 best vertical leaps and bench press scores of anyone strength coach Jon Sanderson has tested in his decade with the team — the product of an Eastern European work ethic Brazdeikis inherited from his parents and the mixed martial arts workouts he learned from his father.

Sanderson also tests the range of motion for each of his athletes and shows the results on a printout he calls a mobility map that looks a bit like thermal imaging. The map shows a silhouette of a body. The areas and joints where an athlete has good or great mobility remain black like the background. Areas where they are stiff are shown in a proportionally bright shade of red.

“He’s lit up like a Christmas tree,” Sanderson says as he looks through the initial tests Brazdeikis did this summer. “This was a huge weak link for Iggy.”

The lack of mobility meant Brazdeikis couldn’t slide fast enough to stay in front of an opponent. His hips and ankles were too tight for him to sit comfortably in a defensive stance. Sanderson told the freshman he didn’t need to worry about getting any stronger, so he wouldn’t be doing any bench press work during his first summer on campus. Then he watched Brazdeikis’ face melt from incredulous to devastated to acceptance in the matter of a few seconds.

“He wasn’t a fan,” Sanderson says. “I remember the facial expressions. If you had a police sketch artist, I could paint it for you. He was just disappointed like, ‘Ah, I really want to do this, but I get it. I get it.’ Everything we ask him to do, he does it.”

Sanderson prescribed a stretching routine Brazdeikis could work on with the team or on his own each day. The freshman embraced yoga and started working some of the poses into his meditation sessions. Slowly, he started to feel looser and lighter.

Meanwhile, Yaklich kept his promise to hold Brazdeikis accountable. He still sends a daily text message to make sure defense is never far from the scorer’s mind. Sometimes it’s an article about an NBA defender or some illuminating stats or just a suggestion about footwork that Yaklich picked up while watching practice film. Yaklich’s coaching style is no different than what he expects from his players. He doesn’t give you a break.

“He’s on you,” Brazdeikis says with a big smile. “There are times when it’s like ‘Uggghhh, just let it go, Coach.'”

In those times, Yaklich likes to remind Brazdeikis of their summertime discussion. “This is what you wanted, Iggy,” he tells him. Brazdeikis nods along. This is what he wants.

On a cold shooting night against Minnesota, while Michigan’s offense appeared to be stuck in the mud for a second straight game, Brazdeikis added 11 rebounds, a block and a steal to help his team scratch out a win. Beilein said earlier this month that Brazdeikis is an “exponentially” better player on defense, which is a big reason why he’s sustained the 29-plus minutes of playing time he gets each game and maintains the trust of his teammates. “I’m not going to lose confidence in myself,” he says. “That’s definitely not something that’s going to happen with me.”

The line between confidence and arrogance can be a tricky one to walk for a young star. Brazdeikis manages to do so without breaking stride because of his constant belief in needing to get better. He sees himself doing big things, and when that’s not working he’ll set about speaking his success into existence. The rest of college basketball is starting to listen. He’s already opened their eyes.