to play football, not to play trumpet
That felt all too familiar.
For the second straight game, Michigan got run off their home court in a contest far uglier than even the lopsided final score would indicate. Within ten seconds of the opening tipoff, MSU guard Bryn Forbes drilled a three-pointer. He'd sink seven more before taking a seat; taking an early seat due to the blowout was the only thing preventing him from tying and likely breaking the Crisler single-game record of nine made three-pointers.
With Denzel Valentine and Eron Harris chipping in, State sunk ten of their 14 first-half 3PA; Michigan couldn't stick with shooters whether in man or zone, allowing MSU to pick them apart with impressive passing. The Wolverines simply had no answer on the other end, making 4/16 first-half 3PA—3/6 for Derrick Walton, 1/10 for everyone else—and tallying only four assists to MSU's 11 in the opening stanza.
Matters didn't improve in the second half. Apparently tired of lighting Michigan up from the outside, MSU's first four second-half buckets came in the paint, including a demoralizing steal-and-slam by Matt Costello, who also embarrassed Mark Donnal with a subsequent spin move and reverse dunk on a post-up. The Spartans lead ballooned to as many as 30 points with 2:48 to play, at which point they were on pace for the best single-game eFG% mark of any team in the country this season; only a solid showing by Michigan's garbage-time unit made the score look half-respectable, and a series of missed shots by benchwarmers brought MSU's eFG% down to a mere 78.0%.
For the second straight game, Michigan displayed little ability to get anything going towards the basket, and they couldn't free up shooters as a result; Duncan Robinson finished with two points and missed all three of his attempts from beyond the arc. Zak Irvin did his best to keep Michigan within reach, scoring 19 on 16 shots, but he didn't get close to enough help from the supporting cast on either end. Aubrey Dawkins chipped in 14 points, but 12 of those came in the second half after the game was well in hand.
Michigan gets a badly needed chance to regroup Wednesday at Minnesota, which is still winless in the Big Ten, and they'll need to figure out what's wrong in a hurry; a rough final seven-game stretch starts next Saturday when the Wolverines host Purdue.
When the threes aren't falling for Michigan, they're usually in deep trouble.
Today, however, that was not the case. The Wolverines hit six triples on 20 attempts, tying a season-low set way back in the opener against Northern Michigan, and yet they controlled the proceedings against Penn State while posting an impressive 1.20 points per possession.
The progression made across the board in Caris LeVert's absence was apparent. Michigan went 19/35 on two-pointers and 23/31 from the line, successfully going at the interior of Penn State's defense time and again. Nobody did it better than Zak Irvin, who attacked from the jump, scoring a team-high 20 points—whenever PSU switched a high screen, Irvin drove to the bucket and got results. As a bonus, he drilled a corner three to beat the first-half buzzer.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman also had a lot of success off the dribble, working his way to the point for 15 points. Derrick Walton played the role of distributor with Irvin focused on scoring; he put up a 13-10-7 stat line, and when PSU threatened to make it a game late, he had six points and a gorgeous assist to Rahkman in the final four minutes and change to put it away. Mark Donnal added ten points on 2/4 FG and 6/8 FT with four offensive boards.
Foul trouble limited Duncan Robinson to 27 minutes and after an early triple he couldn't find the mark from deep again, finishing 1/5 from beyond the arc. That would normally spell doom for Michigan in another game without Caris LeVert, but Aubrey Dawkins provided a spark off the bench again with seven points, two steals, and an assist.
A month ago, under these circumstances, Michigan probably loses this game. The emergence of an effective ball-screen game keyed by Irvin and Donnal has changed the complexion of the offense, however, and that's allowed Michigan to be productive even in games when one or two of their main scorers aren't hitting their outside shots—today, Robinson and Walton combined to go 2/9 from three, yet the offense still hummed along.
Michigan will still need more of those shots to fall in marquee games against Michigan State and Indiana this week. For today, though, they managed just fine as a team working from the inside out. Remarkably, even though LeVert hasn't played a minute in 2016, the Wolverines are momentarily just a half-game out of first place in the Big Ten.
Game ... blouses
Derrick Walton capped the victory in appropriate fashion, drilling a long three as the shot clock expired on Michigan's final possession.
After a poor shooting night nearly cost the Wolverines what should've been an easy win over Minnesota, a 10/21 performance from beyond the arc keyed a hard-fought road triumph over a hot Nebraska squad. In a game of runs, Michigan's significant advantage in outside shooting—especially to open each half—ultimately made the difference, even when they tried to hand that edge right back with ill-advised turnovers.
Walton had arguably his best game of the season running the offense with Caris LeVert still sidelined, posting a 19-12-6 line and making 4/6 three-pointers. His ability to dart into the lane and work off the high screen opened up opportunities for Michigan's two other leading scorers on the day; Mark Donnal (14 points, 4/8 FG) benefited when Walton looked to the paint, while Duncan Robinson (21, 6/12) found more room than usual on the perimeter, especially in transition.
Walton had a hand in eight of Michigan's first 12 points as they ran out to an early eight-point lead, then the Huskers clawed their way back, taking advantage of a defensive lapse by Walton to cut the halftime lead to three with a buzzer-beating triple by Glynn Watson. The second half played out in much the same fashion; M quickly pushed the lead up to 18 points, but turnovers and shoddy zone defense allowed Nebraska to get as close as two points with 3:11 left.
This time, however, Michigan closed the half strong. Walton knocked down a pair of free throws, then Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman found Robinson on a backcut with a beautiful no-look pass for an authoritative finish to get the lead back to six. Shavon Shields, who was hounded into a 4/11 shooting night by Zak Irvin, responded with a layup, but Michigan made a comeback impossible by subsequently knocking down eight straight free throws.
It certainly wasn't a pretty win. Michigan coughed up the rock 14 times, including several skip passes that didn't have a prayer of reaching their intended target; on the other end, the non-Irvin defenders had trouble keeping Nebraska's drivers in front of them, even while mostly playing zone. Road wins should never be discounted, however, and by the power of the three, Michigan emerged victorious in a difficult place to play.
Nine for thirty-one.
Michigan was bound to have a bad shooting night eventually, even in a game where they got a steady stream of open looks. That's exactly what happened tonight; the Wolverines were fortunate to be facing a hapless Minnesota team when the ball refused to behave.
Zak Irvin had himself a night, posting a 19-11-3 line. He did his best work off the dribble, utiziling the high screen to get layups and make 3/5 three-pointers. The rest of the team, however, combined to go 6/26 from beyond the arc. That included a 3/10 mark for Duncan Robinson, who uncharacteristically missed several wide-open looks from his favorite spot just above the break.
The result was a near-unwatchable slog. Minnesota is not a good team, and despite the final score they didn't play particularly well outside of Nate Mason, who scored 25 points—Michigan's perimeter defenders couldn't stay between him and the basket. The Gophers repeatedly gave up great outside looks; Michigan simply couldn't get them to fall.
The Wolverines pushed their lead as high as 15 points in the first half. Robinson, left all alone, had a chance to bump that up to 18, but couldn't find twine. Minnesota finished the half on an 8-0 run and twice as close as three points in the second half, but never kept it there for more than a minute at a time.
Each time they got that close, it was Derrick Walton who responsed, first with a driving layup, then by finding Aubrey Dawkins for a triple that actually fell. Walton scored 22 and got to the rim at will, making 4/7 two-pointers and 11/12 free throws. (He went 1/6 from three, because it was that kind of night.)
While the final result never truly felt in doubt, Michigan survived a scare in a game they'd have no business winning against a quality opponent. They were unlucky with their shots; they were lucky with their foe. It's probably best never to speak of this game again.
It's no secret Michigan's defense hasn't been good this season even by the generally mediocre standard set by previous John Beilein teams. The Wolverines rank 134th nationally in defensive efficiency on KenPom; if that stands, it would be the lowest mark in Beilein's tenure by a healthy margin.
When I first watched the Iowa game, I hoped to find one or two issues I could isolate as the main cause of Michigan's defensive problems. On the first viewing, I identified a couple: Michigan's guards gave up the baseline too often, straining their already sub-par weakside defense. This example came to mind:
This was even worse:
There are two big problems on that play. Walton does a poor job defending the high side screen, allowing his man to turn down the pick and get the baseline. This forces Duncan Robinson to rotate over, which he does—he's improved a lot in that regard—but communication is lacking on the weak side and MAAR isn't in position to contest the corner three.
As the screencap at the top of the post indicates, communication was the other deficiency I noticed right away. When Michigan doubled in the post or switched on a screen, they often ended up with two players guarding one guy off the ball while the other was left alone for a layup. Screencaps are sufficient here; both these plays ended in a layup:
Jarrod Uthoff got a crucial late bucket when Iowa ran a pair of baseline screens and Aubrey Dawkins had no idea who to guard:
Those two issues—dribble penetration opening up weakside threes and blowing rotations off the ball—caught my attention on the first viewing.
Unfortunately, a second pass through the game revealed more problems. A couple Iowa three-pointers I initially believed were caused by the weakside defender were instead the product of poor pick-and-roll defense. Michigan eschewed their normal hard hedge against high screens in favor of a softer, more conservative approach for much of the game, and they didn't execute it well.
On this play, Dawkins gets hung up on the screen too long, which causes a domino effect—Mark Donnal has to wait an extra beat before sinking back into the paint, which forces MAAR to stay on the rolling big instead of getting back to his man in the corner:
On this pick-and-roll, Iowa gets a layup when Walton and Donnal play soft, Mike Gesell has an open passing lane, and the help from Robinson is late and wouldn't have prevented an Adam Woodbury bucket regardless:
One more P&R failure for good measure: when Michigan went back to a hard hedge, Walton doubled Uthoff in the paint instead of guarding Woodbury, who was all alone next to the basket.
Finally, Michigan also had trouble identifying shooters in transition, something Beilein discussed in the postgame presser. On this play, Iowa pushes the pace off a defensive rebound, and the Wolverines initially stymie the attempt to get an easy bucket. Again, a lack of communication comes to the forefront, as Dawkins switches men while Iowa swings the ball around the perimeter, which is news to Donnal:
This is pretty basic stuff that Michigan still can't get right. A couple takeaways from the above:
There's no single fix. There's plenty of stuff that's gone wrong here that doesn't even touch on the lack of a true post presence, which I still believe is the biggest problem with Beilein's defenses. There isn't one defender at the heart of these issues—though Dawkins stands out in a bad way, this goes far beyond him. Getting this defense up to simply mediocre will require fixing multiple areas of deficiency.
But if I had to pick one, it's communication. A lot of these easy baskets result from players not talking to each other. Those screencaps are frustrating and telling.
Long story short, it's tough to see Michigan improving to the point where the defense isn't a liability. We're beyond the midway point and there are myriad problem areas. Players like Robinson and Donnal have progressed during the season from starting points that were frankly bad, but they may have maxed out their defensive potential for this season. Hopefully getting Caris LeVert back—whenever that may be—solves some of the communication problems, but those are also widespread enough that I doubt one man clears them up.
The good news is the offense has plenty of firepower. Michigan is going to have to lean on that for the duration unless they have a team-wide defensive improvement we haven't seen out of a Beilein team during the course of a single season.
Pretty much, yeah.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the Maryland game in GIFs.]