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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.
This appears to be an effective hedge. [Fuller]
Brian directed me to an excellent Vantage Sports article detailing how NBA teams defend the on-ball screen earlier this week and suggested it would be a good idea to take a closer look at how Michigan does it. Before getting into the Wolverines specifically, a look at the three basic ways to defend this:
- Hard Hedge — The way M's done it the most under Beilein. The defender guarding the screener (usually a big man) aggressively slides out on the ballhandler to cut off a drive to the basket and make quick passes more difficult. This temporarily commits two defenders to the ballhandler and usually requires quick rotation from the other defenders on the court.
- Soft Show — A less aggressive approach that still briefly commits two defenders to the ballhandler, in this case the defender guarding the screener moves next to the screener, cutting off a drive directly to the hoop; he doesn't move all the way out on the ballhandler, however, and dives back to the screener after cutting off the initial drive. This still requires some weakside rotation.
- Drop Back — The conservative tack. The defender on the screener drops back (surprise!) into the paint, discouraging the ballhandler from driving while also lessening the burden on other defenders to rotate onto the roll man. This does require the defender on the ballhandler to fight over the screen well, otherwise there's room for a pull-up three.
As best I can tell, college teams favor the more aggressive approaches. This is likely due to two things: pro point guards are really damn good, and there's less space inside the arc to cover in college, making it easier to recover after a hard or soft hedge.
I went through the last three games—Rutgers, Wisconsin, and Nebraska—to see how Michigan defended the pick-and-roll. I found nine instances in which Michigan was in man defense against a P&R*; six times they hedged hard and three times they played a soft show. The results:
A few takeaways with picture pages after THE JUMP.
You may have noticed, especially during the second half of Monday's thumping of Bucknell, that Michigan's offense has looked a little different this season. This season's shot chart, via Shot Analytics, puts it in picture form (green dots are makes, red misses):
A little over 34% of Michigan's shots this season have come from midrange, compared to just over 25% last season. It's not a good change, either; midrange jumpers are by nature the game's most inefficient, and the Wolverines are hitting just 33% of such shots this season, down from 39% in 2013-14. A higher volume and lower efficiency is obviously not a good thing.
A closer look reveals that there may be something here worth sticking with, however. With the usual sample size caveats applying, here's a simple breakdown of what's working and what's not:
(If you're wondering why it looks like a three is included in Irvin's chart, he had a foot on the line.)
Simply put, Zak Irvin is working, and a look at the tape reveals that this may be no fluke, especially since Irvin wasn't bad on midrange elbow jumpers last season (8/19). Here are all of Irvin's midrange attempts from this season:
He's getting these shots primarily in two ways: catch-and-shoot jumpers (3/3) and step-ins when defenders overplay his outside shot (2/4). The aborted drive to the rim off a curl-cut stands as the exception, not the rule.
[Hit THE JUMP for a look at why the rest of the team isn't shooting like Irvin, as well as a picture pages of how M is getting Irvin good midrange looks.]
Indiana took down Michigan on Sunday due to two things: their pick-and-roll defense, explained in excellent detail by both UMHoops and Inside The Hall today, and Yogi Ferrell's blitzkrieg from beyond the arc (video courtesy of ITH):
After taking a closer look at the film, much of the blame for Ferrell's 7/8 performance can be attributed to mistakes by Michigan, though bad luck and simply great shooting also played a big role. It's time for some picture pages, gut-punch by gut-punch.
Click all the images for a full-size view.
Indiana runs a simple weave on the perimeter, with Ferrell dribbling from the top of the key over to Will Sheehey on the wing; Ferrell hands it off to Sheehey. Something is already amiss here, as both Derrick Walton (originally guarding Ferrell) and Glenn Robinson III (Sheehey) are both focusing on Sheehey and have stopped moving their feet:
Sheehey smartly takes one dribble towards the hoop, cutting off Walton's route back out to Ferrell while forcing Robinson to prevent the drive instead of switch onto Ferrell:
Ferrell gets a perfect look at the basket as Walton is far too out of position to recover:
What happened? Obvious miscommunication/confusion between Walton and GRIII, for starters. Walton expects a switch; GRIII expects Walton to continue following Ferrell. Considering Walton had an easy path to stick with Ferrell and no screen was involved, I'm inclined to believe this was his mistake.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
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.