I did not make this headline up
Quality looks. Photos via Dustin Johnson and UMHoops.
(Stats via Kenpom($).)
With a 90-80 win against Oakland on Saturday, Michigan has completed the competitive section of their nonconference schedule with the exception of their annual inexplicable nonconference opponent stashed in the heart of the Big Ten schedule. This year's: @ Arkansas on January 21st. Why does Michigan do it? I have no idea. It's a persistent mystery.
Anyway, we won't learn much of anything about the team we don't already know as they take on Arkansas Pine Bluff, Alabama A&M, and Bradley. The former two are ranked 300+ by Kenpom; Bradley is 209 and has a loss to Wofford on their resume. We have 95% of the data we'll have by the time Penn State rolls into down on the 29th. So what have we learned?
The Big Ten is insane. Michigan checks in at #39 in the Kenpom ratings, which is good enough for a projected conference record of… 8-10. Glurp. That's because there are five teams in the league currently ranked in the top 15: #1 Wisconsin, #3 OSU, #12 Michigan State, #13 Indiana, and #14 Purdue. Michigan is currently leading a second tier from 39 to 52 with Illinois, Minnesota, and Northwestern. Nebraska's by itself in the 70s; Penn State and Iowa are horrible.
The Big Ten has a monster lead on the #2 Big Twelve for the title of best tempo-free conference in the country. It is a brutal league. Without a hugely disappointing tourney, it will be a runaway winner in the KenPom rankings for the second straight year.
Michigan is not in the top tier because of their defense. Their offense is 21st nationally (about which more later); their defense is 80th. The league has four defenses allowing less than 90 points per 100 possessions*; Wisconsin and OSU are 1-2 nationally at 81 and 83.5. Michigan's giving up 95, which is good for ninth. They beat out only Northwestern, Iowa, and Penn State.
That's a disappointing backslide for a team that you'd expect to be better on D. Darius Morris was the only loss and Michigan went from one of the youngest teams in the country to middle of the pack, but Michigan was 34th last year. Small sample size caveats apply; IIRC last year at this time Michigan's defense was just as shaky and they pulled it together in the Big Ten.
*[adjusted for schedule strength]
They are #1 in the country at something. Go ahead, guess. You'll never get it. No, none of those things: Michigan is #1 nationally in making two pointers. I should have told you to sit down. I cannot be held responsible for people falling over at this news.
Now that you've recovered, it makes some sense, doesn't it? I mean, Jordan Morgan missed a bunny against Oakland and Greg Kelser joked about how that will cripple his 77% shooting, and you were like "whoah." There is one guy on the team with enough minutes to register in the stats who's shooting under 55% percent, that Jon Horford at a horrendous awful terrible 53%. Michigan's four highest-volume two point shooters are at 76% (Morgan), 58% (Smotrycz), 56% (Hardaway) and 55% (Burke).
This is partially an effect of the schedule. The defenses they've gone up against have not generally been high quality. It was somewhat ugly against Virginia, possessor of the one elite defense they've faced so far. Michigan went 12 of 28 from two and only stayed in the game with blistering three point shooting—they actually shot better from 3 in that game than 2, 46%-42%.
That's an abnormally good defense, sure, but half of Michigan's Big Ten games are going to be against Virginia-quality Ds. This is a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust conference. That second half against Duke, when they tore up ALL OF THE PLUMLEES, is encouraging. They're #1 for some reason, it's not all schedule.
The rest of their offensive stats are basically in line with expectations. They shoot a ton of threes (20th), are only decent at making them (86th), rarely turn the ball over, rarely grab offensive rebounds, and rarely get to the line. POT, now and forever.
That's not a revelation. That's just how Beilein plays the game. We should be looking at these items in relation to last year. The four factors:
- SHOOTING. Massively improved thanks to the aforementioned two-point fiesta. Third nationally.
- TURNOVERS. Poor relative to last year. There is no easy finger to point: everyone's TO rates are up. Burke does have an alarmingly high 22.6; raise your hand if "freshman PG's most obvious flaw is an excessive quantity of turnovers" surprises you. Right, that's Josh Pastner and no one else.
- OFFENSIVE REBOUNDING. Less putrescent than usual! Last year they were the Maryland-Baltimore County of offensive rebounding. This year they're Marist. This gives you no context at all. They're up three percent, good for a significant leap.
- FREE THROW RATE. Also less putrescent than usual; they've gone from the Towson of free throw rate to… well, not good but also not terrible.
Smotrycz needs to stay on the floor. Smotrycz has improved massively in just about any category you care to name save one: fouls per 40 minutes. He's at 5.9 this year and was at 6.4 before staying out of foul trouble against Oakland. Minutes that do not go to Smotrycz go to Stu Douglass and Matt Vogrich, statistically inferior players in almost literally all possible ways. And those stats don't even account for the defensive problems Michigan has when Smotrycz is on the bench. Michigan will get significantly better if Smotrycz can get his minutes percentage from the 50s into the 70-75 range.
The same assertion goes for Morgan but at least he has a positional analogue on the roster. Michigan's backup 4 is 6'4" Zack Novak.
Defensive issues. The main one: too many quality three-point looks from opponents. They have not been burned by it yet but Oakland missed an array of wincingly wide-open three pointers, as did Virginia. Duke… did not miss, nor did they shoot a lot of quality threes. But the overall point is this: Michigan is facing almost as many threes as they jack themselves. If they're still near 300th in threes faced at the end of the season opponents will have made it rain and Michigan will be staring at a disappointing tourney seed.
The other stuff is the usual: they're mediocre at defending twos, rarely get turnovers, and foul too much. They're kind of short, kind of young, and not that athletic, so none of these things are surprises, but, like, Wisconsin. Michigan can be better defensively—they were better last year—and getting that leap from mediocre to quality will be the difference between a season spent idling near the bubble and waiting for Stauskas/GRIII/McGary and a decent shot at a Sweet 16.
Novak usage. Zack Novak's shooting 64% from two, 44% from three, and has a TO rate under ten. His offensive rating is off the charts… and his usage is in the "limited roles" range. While you can't really run an offense through him, if Michigan could focus a little more on getting him shots it seems like he would reward that effort. That pump-and-step-in jumper he's developed is money.
Some Oakland-specific things? Sure.
Trey Burke! That is all.
Trey Burke! No it's not. How crazy would it be if he was backing Morris and eating up half of the minutes currently being forked over to Douglass and Vogrich? Ah, hell. That crossover-in-a-phone-booth that led to a wide open Hardaway three was fantastic, as were many other things. He just needs to get an increment better here (TO rate) and there (three point shooting) to be a bonafide collegiate superstar.
NBA: you hate 5'11" point guards. Leave him to us for now.
Laval Lucas-Perry. The festival of charges and other ill-advised decisions combined with defensive lapses to paint a picture of why LLP and Beilein had a falling out that led to his transfer. I was going to point out that he would still be welcome on a team with zero bench but I looked him up and he's shooting 26% from three and 48% from two. Michigan's getting that out of Douglas.
He does get to the line a lot, FWIW.
Tim Hardaway, come out and play. In the second half it seems like Michigan tries to run its offense through Hardaway for three or four possessions in a row, which is because he has two shots and two points in the first 20 minutes. He refuses to force the issue, which is why his turnover rate remains abnormally low for a guy with high usage. I'd still like to see Michigan force Hardaway into the game earlier; once he starts shooting regularly other opportunities open up.
Brundidge: there is no Brundidge. They have already burned Brundidge's redshirt unless they're going to Devin Gardner him an injury, so insert usual concern about Eso Akunne getting the backup point minutes, such as they are. Akunne looks about as comfortable at the point as I would and the offense gets extraordinarily ponderous when he's in the game.
He hasn't missed a shot yet, though. Let's give him time at the two. I'm not sure if I'm serious here. Vogrich is one for a billion from three, so Akunne may actually provide more value at the moment.
12/18/2010 – Michigan 69, Oakland 51 – 9-2
This doesn't happen so much anymore, but back in the day there was a point in the lifetime of any Windows installation at which the operating system was so loaded with cruft that the only thing to do was take it out back, shoot it in the head, and reinstall. During this process there was always a moment when the computer reminded you in all caps that you were about to shoot it in the head.
The moment when you hit "Y" was always slightly* thrilling. At that time you had to beat your head against extended memory to get Master of Magic to play—there was always a chance your brilliant reinstall plot would end with you banging your head against the case screaming vile things about Bill Gates's parentage. But if things worked out you'd be able to open your word processor without it automatically typing "I hate you and you are stupid."**
Watching this year's basketball team is like sitting in front of a blue screen that asks you if you'd like to format C:. Last offseason John Beilein saw that prompt and hit "Y," and how. This was not entirely voluntary, since DeShawn Sims had run out of eligibility and Manny Harris tolerance for college, but Beilein also lost Anthony Wright and Laval Lucas-Perry to smaller schools in the area—seemingly by his choice, not theirs—and fired his entire coaching staff.
As a result Michigan entered the year without five of the nine players Kenpom had individual stats for last year. Only one—seldom-used freshman Matt Vogrich—used enough possessions to escape the "limited roles" dungeon. Here's what the very bottom of Kenpom's "height and other stuff" shows when you order by average experience:
Anyone who had coached the straggling returners and a couple of redshirt freshmen was out the door as well. An entirely new coaching staff started burning up twitter with exclamation points, installing a man-to-man defense, and trying to get three pointers to fall. The Big Ten was projected to be brutal, with Michigan a speed bump. This was to be a year of banging the head upon the case without even much hope that it would amount to anything.
Eleven games in, Michigan has essentially completed the nonconference schedule. A game against 1-9 Bryant remains and Michigan bizarrely takes on Kansas in early January, but we've gotten all the information we're going to get before Michigan's brutal Welcome To The Big Ten And Kansas stretch (all numbers Kenpom):
- Dec 28: #11 Purdue
- Jan 2: #74 Penn State
- Jan 5: #9 @ Wisconsin
- Jan 9: #2 Kansas
- Jan 12: #3 Ohio State
That still looks like pain, but after three bludgeonings of okay teams and one stirring comeback against Tommy Amaker's Ivy League favorites the chance Michigan swipes one of those uphill battles is something less than infinitesimal. They'll be worth watching, at least. The stretch after that is littered with teams from 15 to 81, with just two forays back into the top ten after, and with Kenpom wavering between 7-11 and 8-10 for the league record both math and your lying eyes suggest this is an NIT team.
So that's weird. Weirder still is how this is being accomplished: with fierce man to man defense. After shutting down Keith Benson Michigan is now 16th in defense, and we're getting to the point where you can't wave away the results as small sample size against poor competition. UMHoops:
Michigan’s defense held Oakland – a team that has already faced West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, and Tennessee – to their worst offensive output of the season. I’ve been hesitant to believe that Michigan’s defense is the real deal, because making bad teams look terrible only goes so far, but right now there’s no denying that Michigan is playing great defense.
On one particular possession on Saturday, Michigan did so well over 35 seconds that the crowd rose to its feet like the hockey team had just killed off a 5-on-3 power play. With the offense still bombing away from 3 (sixteenth nationally) despite not making any of them (253rd), the primary difference between this year and last year is a switch-mad man-to-man that is totally unlike anything Beilein's ever put on the court before.
That, the complete lack of seniors, and the expectation the team's best player returns. We're about to hit the stretch in the format process where the drive makes horrible noises and bad sectors pop up, but the path from here to the point where our word processor loves us again is far clearer than it was two months ago. This, too, is slightly thrilling.
*(very, very slightly)
**(Things like this actually used to happen. They were called macro viruses and I managed to get one back in the day when I shared a spreadsheet with a lab partner. I don't remember exactly what the cryptic message was, but whenever I opened Word it would type a bunch of stuff, delete it, and then type something else that might have been "ferret" but is probably just me misremembering things.)
The All-Seeing Eye. You know it's a good game when the thing that makes you wince in the second half is when the other team goes on a run to cut the lead from 20 to 10 because the all-seeing Eye of Kenpom will disapprove. Fouling and whatnot pushed Michigan's final margin out to 18, and the Great Eye is pleased—Michigan has run itself from triple digits after the UTEP game to 52nd. They've cleared Penn State and Iowa and are in a virtual dead heat with #50 Northwestern, #51 Minnesota, and #54 Indiana for the title of Sixth Best Team In The Big Ten According To Ken Pomeroy.
As far as tourney resumes go, Michigan is clearly behind Minnesota and their wins over UNC and WVU but well ahead of Northwestern (one decent win against GT and that's all) and Indiana (best win over Wright State). If the Big Ten is destined for seven bids, the last one seems up for grabs with Michigan in the conversation. I don't think the BT is going to get seven mostly because none of the three teams after Minnesota has a nonconference win that would cause the committee to sit up and notice, but Michigan could be vaguely on the bubble late this year.
Put this in your pocket. Illinois suffered a demoralizing loss to their version of Oakland, barfing up a 57-54 stinker against Illinois-Chicago. The difference is UIC isn't secretly pretty good—they're 5-7 and have already lost to Akron, Illinois State, Central Michigan, and other less than awesome teams. Here's a reason why:
When UIC took the 1-3-1 zone against us, we looked lost, and since we were unable to shoot ourselves out of it, we were flailing.
Well, then. Michigan plays the Illini only once and that's in the middle of February, so maybe this won't have a huge impact. But if Michigan pulls the 1-3-1 out against Illinois remember this post.
(Side note: Central Michigan is completely awful despite having what must be the most talented player in the MAC. Trey Zeigler and company are 2-8 and just got obliterated by Detroit. This is depressing but from the Zeiglers' perspective the only thing keeping dad around is the presence of his son so the decision makes sense.)
Doubling down. Michigan doubled Benson the instant he got the ball, which was new. They hadn't helped out their center all year even when Harvard's counterpart was tearing Morgan up; in this game they forced turnovers and kickouts from Benson all day. Morgan held up pretty well with the help.
Infectious coaching. Beilein must have gotten a tiny thrill after Jon Horford gave up an and-one to Benson in the first half when both Zack Novak and Darius Morris went over to him to demonstrate what he did wrong on the play. Novak even provided helpful "arms straight up" versus "whatever you were doing, freshman" pantomimes.
I know how you feel. The UMHoops game preview said "expect a lot more zone" and I thought "that's a really good thing to put in the preview because it's probably going to be true" and then the only zone we saw was a single possession of 1-3-1 at the end of the first half.
How Darius Morris makes the defense go. Thanks to their huge point guard, Michigan's perimeter rotation of Morris, Novak, Douglass, Hardaway, and Vogrich is all about the same size, which allows them to switch relentlessly on all screens, which goes a long way towards making up for a lack of quickness from the pastier guys in the rotation, which means teams get few opportunities to drive the lane because there's always a dude right in front of them.
Michigan's defense is now Wisconsin's: built on never fouling you, never blocking your shots, never stealing the ball, but forcing you into a wide array of not-very-good shots. Michigan is 10th in three point D, 57th in two point D, 11th in FTA/FGA, 14th in eFG%, and well down the list when it comes to forcing turnovers and getting blocks. Instead of leaving their feet they get in spots to take charges and get their hands in the air.
It's the exact opposite of the 1-3-1, which might make the 1-3-1 pretty effective if they 1) figure out how to use it, and 2) deploy it as a change up.
UMHoops game recap. Beilein on guarding Benson. The Wolverine Blog talks about the defense. Morgan fluff from the News. Five Key Plays from UMHoops features this assist, which wasn't key but it was awesome:
There is a shaky but extant torrent.
|WHAT||Michigan v. Oakland|
|WHERE||Ann Arbor, MI|
December 18th, 2010
Michigan has quietly put together a solid start to the 2010-11 season, with a small handful of games against top competition amongst blowouts over the weaker sections of Division 1. Oakland, on the other hand, has been tested in nearly every game this year, losing to top-20 competition in West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan State before finally getting a showcase win against Tennessee on Tuesday. All of those were on the road except the Michigan State game, played at the Palace of Auburn Hills, a "neutral site" that skewed pro-Spartans.
The Golden Grizzlies are tested, and not a team Michigan can bully around in Crisler Arena tomorrow. They have to be concerned about the inverse. Oakland has an excellent duo in 6-11 center Keith Benson, a likely NBA Draft pick this spring, and diminutive junior guard Reggie Hamilton. PF Will Hudson has good size at 6-9 and leads the team in eFG% without attempting a single 3-pointer. With a number of capable role players to round out the roster (though erstwhile Wolverine Laval Lucas-Perry is ineligible to compete until next season), this is a solid squad.
Michigan, meanwhile, has had a nasty habit playing to the level of their competition--which has been mostly down. Their last time out was an uninspiring performance against North Carolina Central which featured abysmal shooting and indecisive offense, especially against zone. A young team like the 2010-11 Wolverines could use an early confidence booster, but Oakland may not provide it. With a win over the Golden Grizzlies, Michigan has a good chance to play themselves into the NIT during the Big Ten season.
With a few games under each team's belt, it's finally reasonable to look at the stats. If you need an explanation of the stats, check out Ken Pomeroy.
|Michigan v. Northwestern: National Ranks|
|Category||Michigan Rank||Oakland Rank||Advantage|
|Mich eFG% v. OU Def eFG%||138||133||-|
|Mich Def eFG% v. OU eFG%||25||69||M|
|Mich TO% v. OU Def TO%||74||279||MMM|
|Mich Def TO% v. OU TO%||166||175||-|
|Mich OReb% v. OU DReb%||169||184||M|
|Mich DReb% v. OU OReb%||28||12||O|
|Mich FTR v. OU Opp FTR||319||151||OO|
|Mich Opp FTR v. OU FTR||10||150||MM|
|Mich AdjO v. OU AdjD||100||137||M|
|Mich AdjD v. OU AdjO||33||28||-|
Difference of more than 10 places in the national rankings get a 1-letter advantage, more than 100 gets a 2-letter advantage, more than 200 gets a 3-letter advantage, etc.
Oakland's tempo-free numbers aren't that impressive, but considering the schedule they've been doing it against, they're performing well. Michigan has a big advantage in holding onto the ball, while the Grizzlies have an advantage in not sending Michigan to the line.
The size of Oakland may give Michigan troubles, as the interior defense has been OK at best for most of the year. Drawing charges early against Utah got Jason Washburn and David Foster into foul trouble early, negating Michigan's height disadvantage. If they can get Oakland's talented big man into trouble early, they should be able to succeed on both ends of the court with Benson on the bench. Michigan's depth among big men has improved with the emergence of Jon Horford, so they can afford giving up a couple fouls trying to draw charges.
Making good decisions offensively will be another key for the Wolverines. Though they haven't been turning the ball over much, shot selection has been questionable lately. Players were passing on open shots against NC Central, and then forcing well-defended shots later in the shot clock. Taking what's available will make the offense run much more smoothly.
Oakland isn't going to come into Crisler Arena scared of the atmosphere. They've played in tougher venues several times this year (and against better teams, too). However, they may be out of gas early in the game, and have a letdown from finally getting that big-name win (or even a look-ahead to Ohio State on Thursday). At the first TV timeout, I think Michigan will have a small lead.
However, by halftime, I think the Grizzlies will have settled into a groove, so Michigan will have to get the confidence rolling early, knock down some shots, and hopefully get out on the break a little bit. The game should be within a couple possessions either way at the half.
The Wolverines have a tough task to handle against the best post player they've seen so far, and this will probably be the first time we see a Wolverine foul out this season. That means more evenly-distributed minutes than we've seen lately among the big men, an a lot more Colton Christian.
At the end of the day, I think Michigan's players and coaches will have good focus in preparation for this game, as they understand its importance. This could be the difference between the NIT or no postseason. That motivation, and the biggest crowd we've seen at Crisler this year (tickets available here) will help the Wolverines pull out the win, by a 69-62 score.