Michigan's top options had a tough time creating good looks at the rim.
Injuries. Let's get this out of the way. Michigan managed to make the tournament despite losing Caris LeVert, who was playing at an All-American level when injury struck, and Spike Albrecht, whose absence kept Derrick Walton on the court for huge minute totals and caused John Beilein to give Andrew Dakich a spot at the end of the rotation. Add in Zak Irvin's wonky back, which affected his shot well into the season, and Derrick Walton still not looking like the player he was before his sophomore-year injury, and it's fair to say health cost the Wolverines at least a couple wins.
The center position. Moe Wagner's late emergence provided hope for the future. For most of the season, however, the center position was the source of much consternation. Ricky Doyle, the presumed starter heading into the season, took a huge step backward as a sophomore; his turnover rate nearly doubled and his teammates clearly lost trust in him as a result. Doyle's struggles may be attributed to the late-season revelation he suffers from sleep apnea, but that realization came too late to save his season or, ultimately, his career at Michigan.
Mark Donnal stepped into the void and improved markedly from his first year of game action. That said, he still had obvious deficiencies, especially on defense. Getting beat up by AJ Hammons is one thing; making Alex Olah look like Hakeem Olajuwon for the second straight year is another. Unless Donnal gets a lot stronger or becomes a legitimate three-point threat, he seems best suited as a backup center; deploying him against opposing backups would mitigate his weaknesses. For that to happen, though, Wagner must cut his foul rate significantly.
Perimeter defense. It was bad, even by the mediocre standard of previous Beilein squads. Michigan's best perimeter defenders, MAAR and Derrick Walton, had uneven seasons on that end of the floor—especially Walton, who'd vacillate from awful performances to good ones with little indication of what he'd bring on a given day. The three spot the biggest sore spot with Duncan Robinson somehow looking sigificantly less bad than Aubrey Dawkins by the end of the season; Robinson was still quite far from good.
The Wolverines were especially poor in the halfcourt. While their transition eFG% allowed fell in the middle of the NCAA pack, they were 273rd out of 351 teams in non-transition eFG% defense, per hoop-math. The problems were myriad: fighting through screens, guarding isolation, contesting shots, weakside rotation—you name it, really. The problems on the perimeter were amplified by the lack of a rim protector; they still started on the perimeter.
via Shot Analytics
Stars taking one step back for every step forward. There were encouraging developments out of both Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton this season. Irvin did an admirable job playing out of position on defense and rounded out his offensive repertoire, nearly doubling his assist rate. Walton posted center-level defensive rebounding numbers and returned to his freshman form as a perimeter shooter.
But with their bigger roles, flaws were exposed. Irvin's forays to the hoop increasingly resulted in turnovers as the season wore on; his handles still need work and teams exploited the fact that he was far more likely to try to kick the ball out than finish in traffic. Walton simply couldn't finish at the rim, continuing an alarming trend from his injury-plagued sophomore season.
This is where LeVert's absence hurt the most. The only player Michigan could rely upon to consistently generate a decent look—MAAR—still had a limited game; while he could weave his way to the basket in LeVert-like fashion, he wasn't nearly on LeVert's level as a shot-creator for others. Rahkman becoming a better all-around offensive player would be huge for the 2016-17 squad. It's becoming harder and harder to expect Irvin or Walton to live up to the expectations set by M's previous top options.
Dawkins, Wilson, and Chatman give M three non-Wagner breakout candidates.
Part one of the postseason mailbag, which definitely didn't include an egregious error in the original post, can be found here. Part two got quite lengthy, so let's get right to it.
A Spike return is very unlikely.
— Erik in Dayton (@erik_dayton) March 29, 2016
While that door isn't completely closed, it would shock me if Spike ended up back on the roster next season, and I think it would shock him, too:
With that, Albrecht and Beilein shook hands and parted ways. According to Albrecht, Beilein told him that if an additional scholarship should open up at Michigan, the program would "entertain the idea of" him returning, but added that such a scenario is unlikely.
"That's a long shot," Albrecht said Monday. "And really, I don't even know if they'd want to bring me back because they'll already have two very talented point guards on the roster next year."
I know it's hard to come to terms with this because Spike is such a beloved figure, but this is the best arrangement for both parties involved. The issue with bringing Spike back, even if a spot does open up, is you're then impeding the development of a highly regarded player at the same position. Xavier Simpson is the future at point guard for this program and they justifiably want him to get plenty of time next year. If he's stuck behind Walton and Albrecht, it's hurting the team down the road just so the team can have a marginal one-year upgrade at backup point guard—and that's not a slight against Spike, just an assessment of Simpson's talent. Plus, Albrecht isn't exactly a sure thing after coming off surgeries to both his hips.
As Spike mentioned above, returning to Michigan isn't necessarily his ideal scenario, either. If he's healthy, there's a good chance he'll start at another program—he'll be able to choose a school with that role available to him. That's not going to be the case in Ann Arbor with Walton coming back and Simpson arriving.
If there's further attrition, I'd rather see Michigan go after a grad transfer shooting guard, preferably one who's a positive on the defensive end—that's a far bigger need than a third point guard. Alternatively, they could go after a stretch four to take pressure off Zak Irvin if there's attrition in the frontcourt. That's far from the sentimental choice, but I think it's the best one for the team.
It appears John Beilein is thinking along the same lines. According to ESPN's Jeff Borzello, Michigan is one of the programs that's contacted grad transfer Columbia combo guard Grant Mullins, who's a 44% three-point shooter. At 6'3" with a PG-like assist-to-turnover ratio, Mullins could play either guard position. The coaches also reportedly contacted Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome (that is apparently a real name), but there doesn't appear to be strong mutual interest; Michigan isn't listed among the schools Broome plans to visit, per CBS's Jon Rothstein.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the mailbag.]
[Left and right: Patrick Barron; middle: Eric Upchurch]
Nik Stauskas, with his ability to make almost any shot a good one, made the game look easy. Trey Burke, with his varied and lethal methods for creating offense, made the game look easy, not to mention beautiful.
Nothing about this season's iteration of Michigan basketball felt easy. It's shown in the pictures, in which seemingly every layup attempt required a Herculean feat of strength and body control just to get the ball on the backboard. It's shown in the statistics; according to KenPom, 10.3% of Michigan's two-point attempts were blocked, a mark worse than all but 13 major-conference programs. It's shown in the despairing comments as the offense ground to a halt against Notre Dame before VJ Beachem delivered the coup de grâce to 2015-16 Michigan.
And that's on the good side of the court. Stopping the opponent has never seemed simple under John Beilein, especially the last few years. The flaws on defense have only been magnified as the offense has gone from historically great to merely good. Every flailing layup attempt swatted into photographers' row didn't just serve as a painful reminder of the team's scoring limitations, but also what they lacked on the other end.
[Hit THE JUMP for feelingsball.]
A five-minute scoring drought. A struggling star player. Iffy post play and equally iffy substitution patterns.
Michigan charged out to an early lead against Notre Dame and controlled much of the game. In the end, however, a familiar set of problems cost the Wolverines the game and capped the season in unfortunately fitting fashion.
Zak Irvin couldn't recreate his recent late-game magic, missing the potential game-tying three-pointer from the top of the key after a discombobulated final possession. Irvin finished the game 4/16 from the field and 1/9 from long range. Derrick Walton temporarily broke out of his shooting slump with a 4/7 first half and looked on his way to a great all-around game; he crashed to a halt in the second, going 0/6 from the field over the final 20 minutes.
The short version, via FiveThirtyEight.
For Notre Dame, forwards Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson each went 4/5 from the field. Michigan's best counter to them in the post, Moe Wagner, hit all three of his shots but played only eight minutes; a questionable charge call for his fourth foul swung the momentum and quite possibly the game in favor of the Irish. The foul negated a Wagner layup that would've given Michigan a two-point lead with 5:39 to play; when Wagner finally reentered with 1:01 on the clock, Notre Dame had a three-point lead and the ball. In the interim, Mark Donnal blew a critical layup.
Clutch late shots by VJ Beachem (game-high 18 points, 7/7 FG) on the perimeter and Colson in the paint gave the Irish the margin they needed to advance. Michigan will be left to wonder: What if John Beilein gave Wagner a longer leash or at least played him ahead of Ricky Doyle? What if Irvin and Walton could play well in the same game? What if MAAR shifted to the point instead of sticking at the two while the team went two scoreless minutes with Andrew Dakich running the offense? What if that official called a block? We now have a long offseason to ponder the answers.
On the plus side, Michigan didn't lose to a 15-seed today.
AJ Hammons celebrates Purdue's victory.
Midway through the second half, CBS cut to a shot of John Beilein giving Moe Wagner an on-the-fly lesson on post defense. Wagner had just committed a shooting foul on Purdue center Isaac Haas and was subsequently pulled for Ricky Doyle.
On Purdue's ensuing possession, Haas bullied Doyle down low and drew another shooting foul. Any lessons Beilein gave out this afternoon came far too late to salvage Michigan's chances of reaching the Big Ten final and locking up an at-large bid.
Instead, it'll be a stressful Selection Sunday after the Boilermakers dominated the Wolverines in the paint. Michigan played all four of their centers; none provided resistance to the fearsome duo of Haas and AJ Hammons. Hammons finished with 27 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks; Haas added 11 points in only nine minutes. Michigan's big men combined for ten points—seven by Mark Donnal, who played only 15 minutes due to foul trouble—and four boards.
Purdue opened each half with a big run—8-0 to start the game, 9-0 to open the second half—and whenever Michigan threatened to close the gap, the Boilermakers beat them back with dominant post play; Purdue scored 44 points in the paint to Michigan's 28. Despite being overwhelmed on the interior, the Wolverines frustratingly declined to double-team Purdue's big men until less than four minutes remained; when they finally did so on Hammons, the double was weak, and a few quick passes around the perimeter resulted in a Rapheal Davis layup.
Derrick Walton (14 points, 5 assists, 4 steals) and Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman (15 points, 7/11 FG) did their best to overcome Purdue's considerable advantage inside. They got little help. Zak Irvin and Duncan Robinson shot 2/12 combined from three-point range; the Wolverines were 6/25 as a team. The Boilermakers made two fewer three-pointers—on 13 fewer attempts.
Now Michigan, which entered today as the last at-large in the field on the Bracket Matrix, will nervously await their postseason fate.
As time winds down on the regular season, Michigan finds itself squarely on the bubble – the classic meh major-conference team that gets sent to Dayton as an 11-seed. Big Ten play is almost over and we know the Wolverines were a middle-of-the-road team (as of right now: 7th in Sagarin’s and Pomeroy’s ratings, 7th in conference efficiency margin, and are likely to tie Ohio State as the 7th place team in the league). When your best resume asset is that you haven’t lost to any bad teams, it hasn’t been a great season. The very real possibility that Michigan misses the NCAA Tournament would qualify this year as a big disappointment.
Still, even though Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht have combined to play just 48 minutes against Big Ten opponents, Michigan will finish with a winning record in Big Ten play and (probably) a positive efficiency margin in league play. This season’s path was very comparable to last season’s: the teams had uninspiring non-conference performances and Caris was lost near the beginning of league play (and Spike and Derrick Walton were injured this year and last, respectively). A year ago, the Wolverines finished 8-10 in Big Ten play – losing four overtime games and winning one – and this year, 10-8 or 11-7 will be the final result. Since Michigan didn’t drop a stinker like NJIT or Eastern Michigan like last season, we’re going to be nervously watching on Selection Sunday – can 3 good wins and a bunch of chalk get us in?
The reason why Michigan hasn’t been better is fairly obvious.
I don't expect Michigan to be actually good at defense for a lot of different reasons, but there's a difference between Michigan's usual meh and this. The trend is worrying. Defensive efficiency in the Beilein era:
- 2008: 100th
- 2009: 69th
- 2010: 58th
- 2011: 37th
- 2012: 61st
- 2013: 48th
- 2014: 109th
- 2015: 107th
- 2016: 145th
This is the third straight year of a triple-digit ranking. While you may remember things as "not good" even when the larger picture was much prettier, this is a whole new era of ineptness only matched by Beilein's first team of castoffs and runaways. This year's team is in fact considerably worse despite than those guys despite having a reasonable amount of experience. For the first time in a while Michigan doesn't have a freshman playing major minutes; for the first time in a while they've crawled out of the 300s in Kenpom's experience stat. This was the first year in a while you could reasonably expect year to year improvement, and yet.
Big Ten 2-pt defense:
1. MSU (41.4%)
13. Rutgers (52.4%)
14. Michigan (55.3%)
WORSE THAN RUTGERS
— Alex Cook (@_ac616) February 29, 2016
When you’re worse than Rutgers at something as critical as 2-point FG % defense, you have a major problem.
[After the JUMP, a lot of graphs]