Following a road trip to Lake Superior State and nationally-ranked Ferris State that saw the Eagles lose both games by a combined 43 points, the AU players and coaches decided to get back to their defensive roots.
That meant not only an adjustment in mindset, but a change in tactics.
The Eagles, who have employed a "pack-line" defense under John Ellenwood in the past, switched to a high-pressure, ball-denial defense before the season as a way to increase possessions and generate turnovers.
Then the preseason happened and injuries struck, shrinking the Eagles' depth and their ability to play at such a fast pace. But Ellenwood and the team stayed course after jumping out to a 5-1 start. It was that fateful trip to Michigan that had Ellenwood realize their defensive strategy was not sustainable.
"If you have a good amount of players – eight, nine, 10-deep – (playing pressure defense) is a possibility," said Ellenwood, now in his ninth season with AU. "With us, we were down to basically six, seven players. When you don't have the numbers, you have to conserve energy because you have a lot of guys playing 30-plus minutes a game."
So the Eagles went back to their pack-line defense that helped take them to an NCAA Tournament two years ago and the GLIAC title game last year. After the Eagles gave up 91 points to Ferris State, the realization set in that they were built more for the team-oriented pack-line defense, than high-pressure 1-on-1 demands.
"We really didn't have an identity and it started to fade as the season went on," said senior forward Wendell Davis, who has been with the program since the 2013-14 season. "We didn't have an identity of what we were supposed to do defensively."
In the pack-line, off-ball defenders stay nearer to the paint and help on dribble-drive penetration, limiting the opponent's quality shots at the rim.
"A pack-line is a great help defense where teams can't drive on you," said Ellenwood. "It protects the paint a little bit more and it also gets you closer to the basket for rebounds."
The defense does have a significant drawback in that it can leave shooters open for 3-pointers, a problem in this age of basketball where the long ball has become even more prevalent. When Ellenwood started at Ashland in 2009-10, 11 players in the GLIAC shot better than 40 percent from the arc. This season, 17 players are hitting that mark.
That has not hurt the Eagles, though. They still rank second in the GLIAC in opponents' 3-point percentage.
The overall results of returning to the pack-line defense have been remarkable. Ashland currently sits fourth in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 62.5 points per game. During their current seven-game winning streak since the loss at Ferris, Ashland is giving up only 53.7 points per game and opponents are shooting just 37 percent from the floor. Opponents have shot 40 percent just twice during that stretch.
"That has to do with how we teach fundamentals off the ball and our positioning," said Ellenwood. "You've got to create easier close-out situations. When a guy drives the ball, if you get too caught up helping on the guy driving the basketball, you can get beat on the recovery. We do a good job of teaching our fundamentals of how to help and how to recover."
This type of defense forces the Eagles to work collectively as a unit on the defensive end of the floor, rather than relying on their individual 1-on-1 defense. Still, it puts the onus on the on-ball defender to keep his man from getting a straight line to the basket.
"Their job is to pressure the basketball without getting beat. That's easier said than done," said Ellenwood. "If the other teams' best players are getting by your best defenders, you're in for a world of hurt, because they're going to draw more than one defender. Any time you draw a second or third defender, you've got a numbers advantage and it's a lot easier to shoot when nobody is standing in front of you. Our goal is to play 5-on-5 basketball. We don't ever want to give up a numbers advantage."
That means the players backing up the on-ball defender need to be in position to keep the driver out of the paint, forcing a tougher shot or a kick back out to the perimeter.
"Everybody relies on everybody else," said Davis. "Let's say I get beat on a drive. Somebody should be in position to help us and then once he moves the ball, the next defender should be able to help him. It's more relying on your teammates. When someone scores, it's not your fault, it's our fault."
The goal is to force teams into mid-range shots and tough 2-pointers, especially with the 3-ball marksmen in the GLIAC and the rest of Division II.
"(Assistant coach) Rob (Gardiner) has a statistic. One of the toughest shots in college basketball and in the NBA is the mid-range," said Davis. "If guys are taking mid-range pull-ups against us, we'll live with that. We just don't want to give up open threes or straight-line drives for layups."
Still, the thing that can't be taught is the effort given on the defensive side of the court.
"Any successful defense has to do with focus, intensity and leadership," said Ellenwood. "With great defenses you have to have energy. That's number one."
Ashland will put its defense to the test this week, starting Thursday (Jan. 11) night at Kates Gymnasium as it welcomes Grand Valley State, which ranks fourth in the GLIAC in scoring (76.9 points per game). Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.