...says Denzel Valentine of Big Ten Tourney favorite MSU, which is 5-7 in its last 12 games. Cumong, man.
Also dear yente if you could saddle Wisconsin in an impossible bracket that'd be great.
In two days it shall be March. We're already familiar with the Big Ten Tourney participants, so let us look beyond to this NCAA tournament thing.
What, my dear yentes, makes a good or bad matchup for this Michigan team, what are some of the teams out there we might hope to avoid, and who among expected high seeds would Michigan match up well against?
Brian: Bracketology consensus has us a three or four right now; I'll go under the assumption they're a three just to simplify things. That means Michigan is looking at the top eight teams on S-curves trying to suss out a good matchup. Wisconsin is in that group for some lucky 7-seed but won't end up in Michigan's region. The others: Wichita State, Florida, Syracuse, Arizona, Kansas, and some combination of Cincinnati/Villanova/Creighton.
No one in that group seems hugely appealing, but I like the Syracuse matchup best of the current one-seeds. They've only got one shooter, they're 11th on Kenpom, they've had a lot of close calls against not particularly good teams, Michigan played their zone last year, and they've got shooting from everywhere. 'Cuse's current backcourt is much smaller and less athletic than last year's version and Michigan's shot generation is a lot bigger, so going over the zone is much more of an option. Also, undefeated or not, Wichita State is short, largely untested, and not laden with NBA superstars future. I will take either of those one seeds.
Conversely, I want nothing to do with Arizona. Michigan damn near beat them earlier in the year, yeah, but that was thanks in large part to an avalanche of missed putbacks. Teams that can just implode Michigan on the boards are my biggest fear. Kansas and Florida are also teams I'd like to avoid.
The optimal lineup? (Apologies for reminding you of those shoes.)
Michigan's underwhelming start to this season can in large part be attributed to the dropoff in play at point guard; this was expected with Trey Burke gone to the NBA, but the degree to which it's affected the team's overall performance has surprised. Without Burke drawing the attention of multiple defenders, Michigan's wings have had a much more difficult time generating offense.
As discussed earlier today, Derrick Walton hasn't had a great start to the season, and his status as starting point guard is tenuous after Spike Albrecht played the lion's share of the minutes against Arizona and acquitted himself well. In an effort to figure out which point guard gives the Wolverines the best chance of winning now, I took another look at the Arizona tape along with the usual foray into KenPom and hoop-math wonkery.
We'll start with the tape from Saturday, focusing on the play of each point guard on both ends of the floor, with an emphasis on the type of shots each generated. Here's the reel for Spike:
And here's Walton:
After THE JUMP, I (chart!) chart every shot from the game, break down my impressions of each player based on the above film and the season as a whole, and take a deeper statistical look into their play.
[JUMP, if you will.]
12/14/2013 – Michigan 70, Arizona 72 – 6-4
Well, here we are.
Because 2013 decided we'd had enough nice things the instant the Notre Dame game ended, this basketball team is 6-4 with one actual nonconference game left on the docket. Good news: Michigan is the highest-ranked four-loss team on Kenpom by 16 slots. Bad news: basketball committees don't look at Kenpom. Nor do they hunt down the ref who called a phantom foul on Mitch McGary with under a minute left against Arizona and give him the spanking of his life.
As a result, Michigan is staring down a rocky path to the tournament despite having what looks like three or four NBA first round picks on the roster. They've got a loss to Charlotte that's looking like it'll be filed as a bad one at season's end; their best win is against Florida State, which is probably a bubble outfit. The reliably brutal Big Ten is still Kenpom's #1 conference by a great distance. Wisconsin has not been left twitching in a ditch by the rule changes. Far from it, in fact.
Trey Burke was pretty good*, and not having him around is like trying to walk straight after years at sea. Michigan's stumbles are understandable. At this point they're threatening to take the team right off the pier and into the drink, though.
Things should settle down at some point. As mentioned, Michigan's surge in on-court experience from about 0.7 years per court minute to about 0.9 is a big leap. It takes them all the way from 342nd nationally to… 335th. Kansas and Kentucky are down there, too, and they've both lost three games despite having a pile of lottery picks. No one is sounding the alarms there, and they shouldn't at Michigan.
But… dammit. Michigan gets one more bucket or Arizona doesn't get bailed out and this storyline is one for the dustbin of history. Michigan takes some tough losses and WIN AGAINST #1 ARIZONA into the conference schedule, feeling like they're going in the right direction and ready to throw haymakers in the wild conference melee to come.
Without that, Saturday's game against a wild-card Stanford outfit is enormous. A loss there and you're looking at the Big Ten much differently than you are now. You're trying to squint out a way that a 17-13 team can possibly make the tournament. As a backup. It probably won't come to that, but neither will it come to anything other than Michigan being the 7 seed you don't want to see.
I'm still cool with that after ten years during which Amadou Ba fighting the MSU student section was the most fun thing about the program, but I will confess a certain desire to see Michigan hack through opponent defenses like they are willows in front of the wrong house-sized woodchipper. It seems unlikely Michigan is going to assemble a pile of talent like this again for a long, long time, and watching it fumble a chance to be a Sweet 16 seed because they stick out their arm and Trey Burke is playing for the Utah Jazz** is painful.
Who wants to take 2013 out back and bury it? I know it's not scheduled to expire for another couple weeks, but it's looking really sick and old and sad and I say we put a bullet in its head. For mercy's sake. The half-hour of tears and kicking the body is also for mercy.
*[Jazz record without Burke starting: 1-13. With Burke starting: 5-7. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has a PER of 9.5. Burke is at 16 as a rookie point guard. Put Joe Dumars in a V-1 rocket and fire him at wherever Charlie Villanueva is now. Wait. HE'S STILL ON THE PISTONS? AAAAAARRRRGH]
**[Since the rocket just takes him back to the Palace, fire Joe Dumars.]
Autobench okay. Look, here's me not complaining about Beilein's two foul autobench: when Derrick Walton got his second with about six minutes left in the first half he left, as per usual. The limited amount of time this cost him and the fact that Albrecht was playing better makes this a-ok in my book.
Walton struggling. Michigan's getting very, very little out of Walton, whose TO rate is higher than his assist rate. In Michigan's losses he has 4 assists to 10 TOs; he had one point in 1 minutes against Arizona. His shooting's not actually that bad (73/49/38), but he struggles to find anything that's not in transition.
You knew there was going to be a dropoff from Burke, and a severe one, but even so I badly underestimated the impact of that dropoff. Walton is currently a huge step back from Burke not as a Naismith winner but as a freshman. Freshman Burke was half the player sophomore Burke was but he still absorbed a ton of possessions (27%) with a near top-100 assist rate while shooting virtually the same as Walton does.
Looking at Kenpom, Walton sticks out like a sore thumb. Leave aside Jordan Morgan, who's under 10 minutes a game and is steadily dropping with McGary back. Every other Michigan player has an ORTG of at least 113, with Stauskas, Robinson, LeVert, and Albrecht over 120. Walton is at 99.
For those of you unfamiliar with that particular stat, ORTG tries to pile every offensive stat into one number that indicates how efficient you are. It's very complicated, and generally respected. It exists in a tight range from 90 from 130, because players worse than 90 don't get to play college basketball and players above anywhere near 130 don't have to for long. The nearest comparable guard to get starter's minutes with a number that low is Tim Hardaway. He had a 103 is a sophomore, when half of his shots were threes he hit at a 28% clip. And that was significantly better than Walton right now at a much higher usage rate. Then you're going back to junior Stu Douglass, who had a 97 in 2011.
Ditto Irvin. Michigan's ability to have freshmen come in and have a major impact early has been a saving grace the last couple years. Not so much this year. Irvin's in the same boat as Walton, only moreso: he had five minutes against Arizona in which he missed one three and picked up two fouls. In other games against real competition:
- Iowa State: 13 minutes, 0 points, 0 assists, one TO
- Florida State: 13 minutes, 2 points, 0 assists, 0 TO
- Charlotte: 26 minutes, 8 points on 3 of 14 shooting
- Duke: 14 minutes, 5 points on 2 of 5 shooting
Beilein autobench on Caris LeVert forced Irvin to take a heavy load in the Charlotte game and that is basically why Michigan lost; otherwise he's been invisible. By this time last year, Stauskas had already dropped 15 on Pitt, 20 on NC State, and 22 on Bradley. Partially because he had Burke feeding him open looks, yes. But cumong man.
Bench issues. As a result of the previous bullet and the instant evaporation of that two-post idea, Michigan is once again running their perimeter players out there for damn near the whole game. Michigan played LeVert, Stauskas, and Robinson 38, 38, and 37 minutes. That's not necessarily a huge problem in timeout-heavy college basketball—Arizona had an almost identical minute breakdown for their wings—but man when things go wrong, like they did in the Charlotte game, they can go wrong.
Signs of life for either freshman will be very helpful entering the Big Ten.
Speaking of timeout heavy. You know it's a special game when you get not one but two coach TOs that are followed by one possession and then a full media timeout.
Caris comin'. LeVert follows a 24 point game against Duke with 15 on 15 shots against a huge Arizona team. His ORTG has shot up almost 30 points(!) and he has an insanely low TO rate for a guy who makes as many odd plunges into the heart of the defense as he does. His shooting slash line is pretty good, too: 83/53/38.
The one thing that's missing: assists. He's not acquiring them any faster than he did as a freshman, and with so much of Michigan's offense falling on his shoulders of late that means McGary and Robinson aren't getting involved as much. Both of those guys need a lot of assists to produce, and they aren't getting them.
Not just a shooter. Stauskas has doubled his free throw rate from last year and leads the team by about 25 points there.
The Albrecht question. Should Michigan move him into the starting lineup? That is hard to judge. His ten points against Arizona was his first double digit game of the year, and how much do assists against Coppin State and Houston Baptist matter? He's only got extended playing time in two games. One was the Arizona game we just saw. In the other he got 27 minutes against Charlotte and was 2/7 from the floor for 6 points with a 4:2 A:TO ratio. Meanwhile, he's not a good defensive player.
Still… he takes care of the ball, has a high assist rate, and has been quietly efficient over the course of his career. We have another 21 3PAs to add to his small sample size and he's still a 50% three point shooter for his career. In those losses Michigan's had, Albrecht has 12 assists to 5 TOs.
His limitations are such that he's never going to have a usage rate much above his current 15%, but I might roll with that, live with the defensive issues, and put some more weight on Stauskas and LeVert.
The other option to get more production there is Caris at the point with Irvin coming in, and I think that's something to give a run, too. Irvin's going to get some minutes here against Not Arizona, and you might as well try it.
"The devil's in the details," said John Beilein after the game, describing the difficulty of winning against good teams.
For 38 minutes, Michigan did enough of the little things to hold a lead against top-ranked Arizona. They shot the ball well, played tough defense on the interior, and didn't allow an athletic Wildcats squad to get into transition at all. Throughout the game, however, they couldn't keep Arizona from owning the offensive boards, and once they started converting putback opportunities down the stretch the Wolverines couldn't hold on—after scoring just two points off nine first-half offensive rebounds, the Wildcats had six critical second-chance points from their eight second-half opportunities. Boxing out, as it turns out, is a critical detail.
Michigan led by 11 points after the first possession of the second half on the strength of an outstanding performance by Glenn Robinson III (right, Fuller), who had 16 points on a perfect 7/7 mark from the field at halftime. For the first time all season, Robinson consistently created his own offense, beginning with a nifty head fake in the post that led to a layup for his first points of the game. Robinson was a non-factor in the latter stanza, however, adding just three points on 1/2 shooting, and the team managed just 12 points—three on a desperation Spike Albrecht shot with two seconds left—in the final 7:55.
The Wolverines still had their opportunities in the late going. The teams played dramatic back-and-forth basketball in the final couple minutes. After Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's three-point play gave Arizona their first lead since the opening minutes with 2:32 to play, Mitch McGary retook control with a pair of free throws, then Brandon Ashley and Nik Stauskas traded quick baskets. Then, when Michigan looked to have the Wildcats scrambling for a good look, McGary picked up a very questionable touch foul on the perimeter; Arizona's Nick Johnson, who played outstanding defense against Stauskas all afternoon, rattled both free throws home with 24 seconds left.
Michigan then tried pushing it up the court for a quick shot; Stauskas got a decent look at a long two but couldn't get it to fall, and the Wildcats had the possession arrow when McGary tied up Aaron Gordon for the rebound. Johnson sunk another pair of free throws, Albrecht managed just a split after Arizona intentionally fouled him with seven seconds left, and Johnson essentially iced the game with a third consecutive perfect trip to the line. While Albrecht made it interesting with a pull-up three with two seconds left, the last-gasp prayer by Stauskas after a missed Arizona free throw only found backboard.
Despite the loss, there were many encouraging signs for Michigan. Robinson's first half certainly qualified, as did another strong second half from Caris LeVert, who finished second on the team with 15 points on 6/15 shooting, ten of those coming after the break. Jon Horford played 25 strong minutes, tallying four blocks—all in the first half—and throwing down a huge dunk on Gordon for his only points of the game. While Derrick Walton was limited to one point in just 14 minutes, Albrecht ran the offense well, dishing out four assists in addition to hitting three of his four attempts from downtown.
In the end, though, Arizona's size and athleticism simply overwhelmed; seven different Wildcats had an offensive rebound (five with 2+), and the massive front line of Gordon, Brandon Ashley, and Kaleb Tarczewski combined to score 46 points on 21/37 shooting.
"It gives us great confidence," said Beilein, referring to hanging in there against a team he praised highly. "But also an attitude to come back and get better now."
The path to improvement, of course, begins with the details.
|WHAT||Michigan vs. Arizona|
|WHERE||Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan|
|WHEN||Noon Eastern, Saturday|
|LINE||Michigan –1 (KenPom)|
Right: Is Arizona enormous and athletic? Well, this guy comes off the bench, if that answers the question.
Michigan welcomes 10-0, #1-ranked Arizona to Crisler tomorrow; the Wildcats ascended to the top spot after following an NIT Tipoff title (beating Duke in the championship game) with three wins in the last ten days. KenPom's metrics are slightly less bullish than the national polls, ranking them sixth; this is still pretty darn good, obviously.
Any look at the Wildcats should start up front, as this team takes full advantage of a huge lineup (15th nationally in effective height). 6'9" freshman Aaron Gordon, a consensus top-five overall recruit, is living up to the prodigious hype; while he's first and foremost a great rebounder (11.4/20.7 OR%/DR%), he's a very effective finisher around the rim who can also stretch the floor (6/16 3-pt). Thanks to a proclivity for taking two-point jumpers that he rarely hits (16.2%, per hoop-math), he's Arizona's least efficient rotation player despite an offensive rating over 105—again, this team is good. Gordon also has 13 blocks in ten games. Aside from the iffy jump shot, his only apparent weakness is free-throw shooting (44.7%).
Gordon is flanked by another former five-star, 6'8" forward Brandon Ashley, whose statistical profile is quite similar to Gordon's except with significantly better shooting numbers—Ashley's 2P/3P/FT splits are an impressive 62/58/73, though that three-point number is based on just 12 attempts. His rebounding rates are nearly as impressive as Gordon's, though he's not as much of an interior defensive presence. Oh, and then there's the seven-foot center, sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski, another excellent rebounder on both ends who finishes very well around the basket. While the offense doesn't run through Tarczewski much, he's the team's top interior defender, tallying 15 blocks already this season.
Now we get to the team's leading scorer, 6'3" shooting guard Nick Johnson, whose shooting splits are a very efficient 61/36/82 despite being the team's highest-usage player. There doesn't appear to be an easy way to defend him, as he's both a solid jump-shooter (40% 2-pt jumpers, 36% 3-pt) and a great finisher at the rim for a guard (77%, which includes going 17/19[!] in transition). Despite the front line of basketball Hoovers, he manages to tally nearly four rebounds per game in addition to his nine total blocks; even the guards play big.
The man to pull it all together offensively is 6'1" junior point guard T.J. McConnell, whose 36.8% assist rate ranks 21st nationally. McConnell takes the fewest percentage of shots out of anyone in Arizona's rotation; when he takes them, however, he does fairly well, hitting 55% of his twos and 35% of his threes this season. He's also a defensive pest with 18 steals this year, and like everyone on this dang team he pulls in defensive rebounds at a high rate for his position (12.4%).
Arizona mostly sticks to a seven-man rotation, so there are just two bench players of note. The man pictured terrorizing two poor souls from New Mexico State at the top of this post is 6'7" forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the other five-star freshman. He's a 55% shooter—mostly on attempts around the basket—and good offensive rebounder who's capable of doing this. 6'3" sophomore guard Gabe York shoots 40% from beyond the arc and otherwise doesn't add a lot—he's also a 40% shooter from inside the arc.
Arizona certainly earned their spot at the top of the polls, having posted four wins over KenPom top-100 teams: a road win over #40 San Diego State, NIT Tipoff triumphs over #57 Drexel and #19 Duke, and Wednesday's home blowout of #81 New Mexico State. The Drexel and Duke games both were relatively close affairs, with Drexel actually holding an early 27-8 lead in their game.
Four factors, with obvious sample size caveats applying (national ranks in parentheses):
|eFG%||Turnover %||Off. Reb. %||FTA/FGA|
|Offense||55.3 (27)||18.7 (186)||42.7 (8)||44.0 (117)|
|Defense||40.4 (4)||17.1 (250)||24.7 (12)||32.3 (45)|
Why yes, a team full of skilled giants does rebound exceptionally well, as it turns out. You probably gleaned this from the individual numbers: the Wildcats are one of the best teams in the country at not only crashing the offensive glass, but preventing opponents from doing the same. The defense in general is posting extremely good numbers: #5 nationally in defensive efficiency (91.4), #11 in two-point defense (40.3%), and #23 in three-point defense (27.2%).
The offense is good but not lethal, with most of their points being generated inside the arc. While Arizona is 26th in offensive efficiency, they've struggled in some of their tougher games:
Not counting laugher @ home vs Texas Tech, Arizona scored 0.99 points per trip vs. Drexel, Duke, UNLV; 26% on 3s, 48% 2s. Fret accordingly.
— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) December 8, 2013
If Michigan can keep Arizona out of transition and force them to settle for outside shots, they can hold their own. While this is easier said than done, Michigan has been very good at not turning the ball over and the Wildcat defense doesn't force many themselves.
BOOOOXXXXXX OUUUUUTTTTTTT. This really cannot be emphasized enough. It won't be enough for Mitch McGary to hold down the fort on the defensive glass while the rest of the team looks to break out; with so many good offensive rebounders on Arizona, everybody needs to account for their man or this will turn into a parade of putbacks.
Fall back. On the other end of the court, however, Michigan will be chasing a unicorn if they think the path to winning involves anyone besides McGary going all-out for second-chance opportunities. Arizona is just too big and athletic up front for the Wolverines to risk allowing them easy breakout opportunities, especially since the Wildcat offense can bog down in the halfcourt. If you're getting the sense that a Michigan win relies heavily on McGary having a huge performance ... yeah, that sounds about right.
Establish a secondary scorer early. Michigan's recent struggles have in large part stemmed from having no immediate answer when opponents expend most of their energy making sure Nik Stauskas doesn't beat them. I don't know about the how, I'm not even entirely sure about the who, but somebody—my guess: Caris LeVert—needs to establish themselves early as a legitimate scoring threat in the halfcourt.
THE SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
Michigan by 1
KenPom has decreed it, and I have learned my lesson several times over. On paper this doesn't look like a great matchup for Michigan; however, if they can find a way to get out in transition—and Arizona isn't great at taking care of the ball—then they should be able to find a way to put up enough points against a stout defense to make this a very tight game; from there, I have more confidence in Michigan's shooters than Arizona's down the stretch.
Stauskas' ankle is "pretty close" to 100%, while McGary and Morgan are dealing with quad contusions that shouldn't limit them at all.