I'VE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU SONNY
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The main reason Michigan lost a heartbreaker to Indiana on Sunday—yes, even more than their late-game free throw misses—was their inability to keep the Hoosiers off the offensive glass. Indiana rebounded 24 of their 40 missed shots; once second in the country in defensive rebounding, the Wolverines are now eighth in their own conference.
What's odd about this at first glance is that Michigan boasts a trio of centers who are all proficient rebounders. Jordan Morgan (#9) and Mitch McGary (#5) both rank among the top Big Ten players in defensive rebounding percentage, and Jon Horford would rank just ahead of Morgan if he played enough minutes to qualify.
After looking at the film, it's apparent that Michigan's bigs lack the support they need to defend the boards; the team's overall inexperience and poor perimeter defense are most apparent in this area. One play in particular from the Indiana game bears this out:
Let's look at this frame-by-frame, starting with the defensive lapse that begins the sequence—Tim Hardaway Jr. falling asleep in the corner and allowing Victor Oladipo to beat him on a backdoor cut:
Zeller has no problem getting the ball to Oladipo in great position for a shot. With Zeller and Jeremy Hollowell (#33, on the other side of the FT line from Zeller) at the top of the key—drawing Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III way from the basket—Hardaway must fend for himself:
Here's where Michigan's rebounding issues begin in earnest. This is the point where Oladipo releases his shot. Note that Zeller, Morgan's man, has stayed on the perimeter, while Hollowell is crashing the paint behind Robinson. Hardaway is accounting for Oladipo and Robinson should be responsible for Hollowell; both are in decent position right here, while Nik Stauskas has been beaten to a good rebounding spot by Will Sheehy:
At the moment before Oladipo secures his own rebound, however, it's clear that Michigan's perimeter players haven't done their job. Hardaway first goes for the block and then reaches for the ball instead of putting a body on Oladipo, who will easily step by him and get the board. Robinson has watched the ball the entire time and allowed Hollowell a free pass to the basket. Stauskas is lucky not to give up a putback after letting Sheehy get right under the basket. Morgan is in solid position but the ball doesn't bounce his way. This is not good:
Oladipo kicks the ball out to Jordan Hulls, who gets a wide-open look from three after Trey Burke drifted away from the play. At the moment Hulls releases his shot, most of Michigan's players have at least partially recovered—Burke is attempting to close out, Morgan is on Zeller, and Hardaway and Stauskas have found their men. Robinson, however, is still watching the ball, unaware that Hollowell is on the complete opposite side of the lane:
As the shot comes off the rim, you can see three Wolverines—including Robinson—trying to box out two Hoosiers on the left side of the lane, while Morgan is left with the unenviable task of being one guy having to guard two guys:
This, predictably, does not go well. Zeller taps the rebound to Hollowell, who's able to gather the ball and go up for a layup despite Morgan's best efforts to be two Jordan Morgans.
To sum up, on this play we've got:
- Hardaway falling asleep on a backdoor cut
- Stauskas getting beat along the baseline
- Hardaway not boxing out Oladipo
- Robinson not boxing out Hollowell
- Robinson not boxing out Hollowell again, nor even being in the same general area
Watch Robinson throughout the play, here in handy gif form:
He never leaves an area covering about 15 square feet until it's far too late. You know how coaches say the key to a freshman succeeding is having the game slow down for him? On defense, at least, the game is going about 200 mph for Robinson, who's trying to defend with his eyes instead of his feet—while he's watching the ball, he's losing his man.
One play doesn't make a trend, of course, but there were several other instances of Michigan's non-centers being the culprit for an offensive rebound.
[For more rebounding pain and suffering, hit THE JUMP.]
For the first time this season, Michigan's offense looked stagnant for prolonged stretches against Ohio State, largely due to the Buckeyes shutting down the pick and roll game. Going back over the film, it was clear much of this had to do with the on-ball defense of Aaron Craft, who hounded Trey Burke into a 4-for-13 shooting performance.
Interestingly, Craft was able to get away with going under the screen for most of the game despite Burke hitting a three-pointer when he did so in the game's opening minutes. With Burke not shooting over the top, Craft was able to take away his ability to get to the basket, and with that the easy buckets that Burke usually creates for himself and his teammates.
While Craft played a stellar defensive game, however, it wasn't his play alone that mitigated Michigan's go-to offensive play; the Wolverines simply didn't execute well on offense. Here's one such example—Michigan has just reset after an offensive rebound, and Mitch McGary comes out to set a screen for Burke:
Note that there's plenty of space in the middle of the Buckeye defense above. In the next frame, you'll see Craft has gone over McGary's screen and is now stuck behind Burke, so OSU center Evan Ravenel steps up to cut off the drive while McGary starts his roll to the basket:
At this juncture, Michigan should be able to create a good look. Burke is past Craft and therefore occupying Ravenel. McGary is heading to the basket, which should force Deshaun Thomas (defending in the paint) to abandon guarding Tim Hardaway Jr. entirely—which, of course, leaves one Buckeye to guard both Hardaway and Nik Stauskas. If Sam Thompson—at the top of the screen—comes down to help, Glenn Robinson III should be open in the corner for a... wait, Glenn, where are you going?
Unfortunately for Michigan, Robinson cut to the basket at precisely the wrong time—he heads right into the space that McGary is cutting towards. When coaches talk about the importance of spacing, this is what they're talking about. The spacing issues Robinson's cut creates are really apparent in the next frame:
Even though Burke still has a step on Craft, OSU has every Michigan option covered. Ravenel is both taking away the drive and any passing lane to McGary, while Thompson is doing the same on Robinson. Thomas is able to step out on Hardaway. Stauskas is occupied in the corner. Now Burke is forced to try to make something out of nothing:
That something turns out to be a contested layup over Ravenel that doesn't even catch iron. Note that a small blanket could cover both Robinson and McGary.
While Craft recovered nicely, this is a play that should've resulted in a Michigan basket, but it was thwarted by inexperience; a simple mistimed cut from Robinson is enough to throw off the entire play.
As Michigan romped through non-conference play, it was easy to forgot that they're still a very young team. Some freshman mistakes are more obvious than others, like when Caris LeVert threw a pass to no one after leaving his feet, giving Ohio State an easy fast break layup. Plays like the one above—after a reset, when a player needs to know on the fly where the offense calls for him to be on the floor—are more subtle, but also show off mistakes born from inexperience.
Those plays should be fewer and farther between as the season goes along; at the same time, this team is going to rely all year on five freshmen. Trey Burke is a great example of a player making a big leap after getting familiar with John Beilein's system—that leap, of course, came between his freshman and sophomore seasons. It's doubtful Michigan is going to eliminate these types of errors by March.
That's not to say Michigan can't make the Final Four by sheer force of talent combined with Beilein's coaching; if they do, though, they'll have to overcome their youth.
Trey Burke had—by his standards—a sub-par performance against Nebraska, needing 16 shots to score 18 points and only dishing out three assists. In the post-game presser, I asked John Beilein if Nebraska did anything defensively that he hadn't seen so far this year; without going into details, he mentioned that the Huskers had a different way of defending the pick and roll—Burke's bread-and-butter play.
After taking a look at the film, I think I've found what he was talking about. Last year, opponents utilized a hard hedge—doubling Burke off the screen with their big—as a way to dial up the pressure against the diminutive point guard. On Wednesday, Nebraska came with a variation, which this uneducated blogger will call a 'soft hedge'. To the screencaps!
After Michigan reset up top, McGary comes over to set a screen for Burke. The key player for Nebraska will be McGary's man, Brandon Ubel (#13), who in this frame is fighting through a screen by Tim Hardaway Jr.
As McGary sets the (not great) pick, Burke's man fights hard over the top; his responsibility is to make sure Burke can't pull up for three. Instead of hedging hard, Ubel positions himself a few feet inside the arc; his primary objective is to take away the drive.
Burke's man has successfully gone over the screen and recovered position, with Ubel in position to stymie any attempt to attack the basket off the dribble. Meanwhile, Hardaway's man (#24 Dylan Talley, standing right below the 'B' in the paint) has sunk back to defend a pass to McGary on the roll.
With Burke contained, Ubel slides back onto McGary while Talley heads out towards Hardaway.
I should probably have kept the next part in the video: Talley is late getting back out to Hardaway, who drives to the free-throw line and knocks down a jumper. Still, that was a tougher shot than what Michigan usually produces off the pick and roll (a layup or an open three), and I don't think Talley needed to sink so far into the lane with Ubel falling back.
What does the soft hedge accomplish? A few things.
No open threes. With the guard going hard over the top, Burke doesn't get a good opportunity to pull up for three, especially with Ubel in position to step out and contest.
No dribble drive. With the way the defense is aligned, if Burke wants to drive he can only go to his left—straight into Ubel. That's not much of an option.
No easy slip. One of the ways Michigan counters the hard hedge is to have the screener "slip" the pick—roll to the basket before fully setting the pick, ideally to receive an early pass before the double can get to Burke. With the big hanging back in this case, that option isn't there either.
Of course, there's no perfect way to defend the pick and roll, or John Stockton and Karl Malone wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame. I see two counters to the soft hedge. One is what Michigan did above: kick it back out to the wing (in this case, Hardaway), who should have an open look from deep or the opportunity to drive if his defender is late to recover or closes out too hard.
The other actually occurred a few minutes earlier in the game and should've resulted in an easy two points. On this play, Nebraska defends the initial pick in the same fashion; instead of rolling to the basket, however, McGary doubles back and sets another screen going the opposite way. The Huskers are forced to double Burke, and McGary slips the pick; Burke's feed is on the mark, but McGary's dunk attempt ricochets off the back iron:
Surprisingly, Michigan didn't really go back to this tactic despite the fact that it should've resulted in a (successful) dunk.
While Nebraska's defense did a solid job of limiting Michigan's points off the pick and roll, I don't think this is the magic bullet to stop that aspect of the Wolverine offense. The picture-paged example shows some sloppy play from Michigan; McGary's pick is too shallow, allowing Burke's man an easy path over the top, and the offensive spacing on the perimeter isn't ideal. Then, when Michigan countered, they did everything right except convert an open dunk.
The soft hedge is another way to slow down Burke, however, and does a good job of forcing him to give up the basketball—any defense that takes the ball away from Michigan's best player is one we'll likely see a fair amount moving forward.
Trey Burke had a virtuoso performance against West Virginia on Saturday, scoring 27 points on 16 shots with eight assists, five rebounds, three steals, and no turnovers. Already the consensus choice for best point guard in the country, he's legitimately in the conversation for national player of the year honors; excise a ten-point, four-assist "dud" against Kansas State, and he's tallied either 16+ points or 7+ assists in every game this season.
John Beilein's offense is complicated, a highly-structured symphony of cuts and screens that relies largely on off-ball movement to create open looks. That is, unless it's time for Trey Burke to score. Last year's offense centered around the high ball screen to get Burke looks at the basket; while that's still a big part of the offense, Michigan is increasingly looking to isolate Burke and let him create.
The Wolverines did this in a variety of ways against West Virginia. Let's take a look at a few of them.
Michigan showed this setup a few times on Saturday. Instead of having two guards up top, Burke is alone with the ball; the 2 and the 3 (Hardaway and Stauskas) set up in the corner; the 4 and the 5 (Robinson and Morgan) form a stack at the free-throw line. This alignment leaves plenty of room on both sides of the court for Burke to maneuver. On this play, Burke doesn't even need help from a screen—he simply sets up his man with a hesitation move and drives hard to the right, netting a short bank:
The help is late-arriving because the threat of an open Stauskas or Hardaway (either in the corner or cutting to the basket) is, well, threatening. Having both bigs at the free-throw line or above draws the defense's shot-blocking threats away from the basket. A defense could try to counter this look by playing zone, but that brings forth a new set of problems, especially against a sharp-shooting team like Michigan.
Of course, for this set to be effective, a team needs a point guard who can create off the dribble and finish. This is not a problem for Michigan, obviously.
[Hit THE JUMP for more Trey Burke driving into big blue circles.]
It's no secret that Evan Smotrycz has struggled mightily for a large portion of the Big Ten schedule. In the four games leading up to Sunday's tilt against Penn State, Smotrycz had scored just 12 points in 64 minutes. Against the Nittany Lions, however, Smotrycz went off to the tune of 17 points on 6-7 shooting, including 3-4 from downtown.
With little depth up front and Tim Hardaway's production a major question mark, the Wolverines might have to rely of Smotrycz's secondary scoring to carry the team through the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments if they hope to survive and advance. After appearing to lose confidence in his shooting stroke in conference play, Smotrycz was assertive and productive against Penn State.
It should not come as a surprise that much of the credit must go to John Beilein and the coaching staff, who found several different ways to get the ball to Smotrycz in good shooting position. How did they do this? Let's go to the tape.
The first play I'll feature was also broken down by Dan Dakich—who I think is a great commentator, by the way—so I'm cheating a little bit here, but it's worth another look. The side pick-and-pop is one of the staples of Beilein's offense. It starts with Michigan resetting to their base 2-1-2 look, with Smotrycz manning the middle as the center:
In the frame above, you see Burke heading to the far corner after passing off to Hardaway, while Vogrich cycles up top. Below, you'll see that Novak has worked his way from the near corner to the edge of the paint, and Smotrycz has turned towards the basket to set a pick. Vogrich now has the ball at the top of the key; Michigan's spacing, as usual, is excellent. The Beilein offense is predicated on spreading the floor at all times, forcing the defense to extend to the perimeter.
Novak comes around Smotrycz's pick and curls into the lane, getting past his man and forcing Penn State's center—previously guarding Smotrycz—to stay at home. With Novak drawing two defenders inside, there's ample room for Smotrycz to pop out to the perimeter:
Vogrich delivers the pass, and Smotrycz's man is in no position to get out and properly contest. Smotrycz will fire away and knock down the triple:
Here's the full video of the play:
This is a very simple concept, but when executed properly it's tough to defend—there's a reason Beilein loves big men who can shoot. With Smotrycz at the five, he produces major matchup issues on the offensive end. In this case, a lumbering center is forced to make a very athletic defensive play to prevent an open layup by Novak on the curl-cut, then get out to Smotrycz on the pop; he's incapable of doing so, and Michigan gets an open three. If Penn State's defenders stick with their men, they'll likely give up an easy two points to Novak. If they switch—not easy on the fly, though probably the best way to defend this play—Michigan will at least have created a couple of mismatches on the floor.
When Smotrycz plays at the four, he's able to get screens of his own away from the ball. In this next clip, watch the two-man game with him and Jordan Morgan on the far side. Smotrycz first cuts from the corner to the basket, briefly drawing two defenders, then gets a screen from Morgan as he heads to the perimeter. He gets the ball on the wing and, with his defender still scrambling to get outside, is able to take a couple of dribbles towards the paint, then smartly pull up for a short jumper:
That shot is easy money for Smotrycz, but Morgan's man can't fully commit to contesting without potentially giving up an open dunk to Morgan. Caught in no man's land, he's forced to concede a 10-footer; it's a nice play by Smotrycz to recognize this and pull up instead of trying to take it all the way to the basket.
Finally, you have your standard pick-and-roll. With opponents often hedging hard on Trey Burke—one of the few ways teams have found to slow him down—it's imperative that the screener knows when it's time to dive to the basket. On this play, Smotrycz times it perfectly, slipping the screen a little early to give Burke enough space to pass before the hard double is fully there. The result? An easy layup:
Beilein's offense is regarded as quite complex, and with the wide array of plays involving intricate off-ball movement I'm not one to argue. However, that doesn't mean there aren't some very basic concepts that produce much of the offense, and most of the stuff above—especially the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop—isn't difficult to spot even for a novice fan. Much like with football, fully appreciating the minutiae of Michigan's offense involves taking your eyes off the ball. For a player like Smotrycz, especially, most of his shots are going to be created when the ball isn't in his hands.
In his recap of the Illinois game, Brian left a bit of a hint about what I should take a look at when watching film this week:
Michigan got a ton of fast break and secondary transition points; in the second half when Illinois was crashing the boards hard anything that didn't end up getting rebounded by the trees fell to a shorter faster Michigan player and the resulting transition opportunity was often an odd-man break. I'd be interested to see a breakdown of Illinios points off of offensive rebounds versus points in transition when Michigan actually got the board. I'd guess it would be a small advantage to Illinois, but not one that outweighs the benefits of going small to Michigan's halfcourt offense.
You know Brian; he puts the 'b' in subtle. Somehow managing to pick up on this, I took a look through the film at each of Illinois's missed shots, recording the result of the miss (offensive or defensive rebound), points scored off those misses, and how often a Wolverine rebound resulted in a fast or secondary break. Brian's assessment was pretty darn accurate.
Illinois second-chance points: 9
Michigan transition points directly following a defensive rebound: 9
The Illini, like Brian stated, went all-out on the offensive glass, coming up with 14 offensive boards (although two of those were "team rebounds" when Michigan knocked the ball out of bounds). I counted 18 defensive rebounds for the Wolverines—the box score shows one more; I think that came in the waning seconds—and had this breakdown of what they did with them:
Fast break: 4 opportunities, 4 points.
Secondary break: 5 opportunities, 5 points.
Michigan slowed pace and went into their half-court offense on the other nine rebounds; as you can see, half the time they were running after a miss. Here's a closer look at how Michigan pushed the pace off a miss. In this first frame, you see Illinois putting up an outside shot while the Wolverine have four players in good position to get a rebound:
Illinois ends up with three players either inside or directly next to the paint as Evan Smotrycz grabs the board. Before Smotrycz even hits the ground, everyone but Burke is charging up the court. Burke starts to flash to the middle of the floor in case Smotrycz needs an outlet:
Smotrycz turns and takes one dribble. This snapshot is taken right before he passes to Novak, whose feet you can see at the very top of the screen. Hardaway is already well down the floor, and Michigan has the numbers to run:
Novak gets the pass on the wing and heads to the middle of the floor, drawing in the Illini defense. Douglass trails and is wide open as Illinois is late to figure out matchups and making sure that Hardaway—who's behind the defense—is accounted for:
Douglass gets a wide-open look for three, though his shot draws iron. Still, Michigan is able to create a great look from distance by recognizing Illinois's aggressiveness on the offensive glass and countering. Full video of the play:
Douglass actually ended up with a second open look on the secondary break later in the half. On this particular play Michigan is really able to go full-bore as it's Burke who comes down with the rebound, enabling the other four players to head up the floor without worrying about who's going to handle the ball in the backcourt. Burke drives hard into the paint, catching Illinois off-guard and freeing up Douglass for a shot from the exact same spot as earlier. Unfortunately, he misses again, but it's still a nice play by Burke to create the shot:
In case you're feeling the need to complain about Stu—unwarranted, in my opinion, as he hit two of his other three shots while playing phenomenal defense on Brandon Paul (7 TOs)—here he is taking it coast-to-coast for a layup when he sees an opening in the Illini D:
While Michigan once again was dominated on the glass in their own end, they largely negated this advantage for Illinois by making them pay for crashing the boards. With Ohio State—a team that thoroughly destroyed the Wolverines in the rebounding category in their first matchup—next up on the schedule, Michigan will need to continue exploiting these openings created when the Buckeyes get too aggressive offensively.