I did not make this headline up
The season may very well be over, and that might be for the best. This Michigan squad squeezed every last bit of talent and effort out of an undersized, overmatched, and exceedingly young group over the last couple months, to the point that I'm not sure they have much left to prove this year. This team battled harder than anyone expected after the losses of Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, and there's little doubt they're going to be dangerous as all hell next year.
For the first 15 minutes of today's matchup against the Goliaths of Wisconsin, Michigan looked to be on their way to a stunning upset. Eventually, though, the mismatches up front caught up to the Wolverines, who started the game with Zak Irvin guarding Frank Kaminsky and Max Bielfeldt on Nigel Hayes. The Badgers closed the first half on an 18-4 run and kept Michigan at bay, though not by much, through the second half.
The Badgers won by virtue of size, talent, and experience. Aubrey Dawkins looked the part of a freshman against Sam Dekker, who led Wisconsin with 17 points and pulled down four offensive rebounds. Hayes managed nine points and three offensive boards of his own. Kaminsky talled 16 and 12 against a wave of double-teams. Fittingly, a Hayes putback after Kaminsky drew in M's interior defenders proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
But man, did Michigan fight. Irvin once again raised expectations for next year with a tremendous all-around performance. He scored 21 points on 9/18 shooting, hitting an array of NBA-level midrange shots, knocking down three of his seven triples, and finding his way to the basket. Tasked with cleaning the glass against Wisconsin's huge front line, he recorded 11 rebounds, all on defense, which was one off a career high. For good measure, he added three assists and three steals; a baseline dish to Ricky Doyle looked like it was ripped straight from Spike Albrecht's highlight reel.
Doyle, who's been quiet of late, gamely battled Kaminsky in the post, and got the better of the Big Ten Player of the Year his fair share of times: Doyle hit all six of his shots from the field to tally 12 points. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had a couple great takes to the hoop on his way to eight points on 4/7 shooting. Albrecht added ten, highlighted by a couple deep threes.
So, yes, Michigan lost, but the positive indicators for next season were everywhere: a pivoting Doyle finish against Kaminsky, Albrecht dribbling through defenders like Steph Curry before pulling up for a jumper, Dawkins throwing down an Irvin miss on the break, Rahk blowing by the defense for a layup, Kam Chatman tossing an inch-perfect entry pass to Doyle for a layup.
The Wolverines didn't have quite enough juice to overcome one of the best teams in the country. Suddenly, though, the big question for next year is this: how is John Beilein going to find playing time for all these promising young guys? After a season replete with real problems, that's one heck of a good problem.
The result last night, and the fashion Michigan got there, was no doubt painful. Lost in the insanity and disappointment, however, were several encouraging signs for the future. Since Brian covered the coaching stuff in today's mailbag, my focus for today will mostly be on the bright side of life.
BUT FIRST, NIT OUTLOOK. So, yeah, that obviously wasn't ideal. DRatings updated their NIT bracketology today, putting Michigan as the second six-seed. A home win over Rutgers isn't likely to change much there (a loss would obviously be a huge blow), which puts Michigan perilously close to the edge:
All regular season champions that did not win their conference tournament automatically qualify for the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). It is important to note that early predictions will be flawed because of this rule. Typically, there are about seven to nine teams that win their conference in the regular season but don’t win their conference tournament and end up in the NIT. So, in early predictions, if your team is a seven or eight seed, then it is likely they won’t make the tournament because of these auto qualifiers.
DRatings currently has ten teams below Michigan projected to make the NIT field. Hold onto your butts.
ZAK IRVIN, EVOLVING. For much of the season, Zak Irvin has been a source of disappointment. If Caris LeVert was supposed to step into Nik Stauskas' shoes, Irvin was supposed to step into LeVert's, becoming this year's guy to add a ton to his game and set himself up for lead dog status/early entry discussion.
It didn't happen right away, but take a look at Irvin's last six games:
|TOTAL (Avg.)||105 (17.5)||20/41 (49%)||16/40 (40%)||17/23 (74%)||3 (0.5)||31 (5.2)||13 (2.2)||9 (1.5)|
Now think about this: Irvin didn't make more than three two-pointers in any game his freshman year—and he only did that twice—and other than the opener against D-II Hillsdale he hadn't made more than four this season until the Indiana game. He had five last night, mostly on NBA-level pullup looks that he generated with surprising ease:
Over the last month, Irvin has raised the bar from top-flight supporting player to potential go-to guy on a good team, and that's a huge step. He's developing moves that reliably get him to the basket—he's incorporating the shot fake, for instance, which is particularly effective given his shooting ability—and he's both finishing and getting to the line more often.
[Hit THE JUMP for more Irvin and a look at the development of three freshmen.]
You should really look at the big version for the background faces [Patrick Barron]
We have a theme, a palpable theme. Michigan plays about as well as they can, is right in it with a team headed to the tournament, and cannot finish the job. Three of Michigan's last four losses have followed that pattern, with the exception a home blowout against suddenly incandescent Iowa.
That was also going to happen—the ugly blowouts against teams that can exploit the various holes in Michigan's roster—but overall it's a familiar theme: Michigan's got a bunch of guys trying their best and not quite making it. This is also known as "the Amaker tenure."
In this case Michigan had to get raided by the NBA draft, lose their top two players, and have their touted freshman spectacularly underperform. They'll be a lot better next year. Take this team, add Walton, Duncan Robinson, DJ Wilson, and a year of experience for literally everyone and you're back to being a tourney team.
Levert? FWIW, I was talking to Sam Webb during my weekly WTKA thing (Thursdays, 9 AM) and LeVert came up; he said that it wasn't a slam dunk he'd go, and I was like "er, what" and he said he likes school, loves the team, and might stick it out. He is very young for his grade. Obviously, the prospect of a guaranteed seven-figure contract is and will remain tempting.
It would be nice to finally get a guy who could go back.
Irvin bust out. Indiana does not have a good defense. Let's stipulate that. But Michigan actually saw a good deal of, you know, offense. Michigan's 13 assists were the most they'd had since the Penn State game, and rarely have they cracked double digits. That's symptomatic of an offense that's struggling and resorting to a lot of heroball.
Nobody has been more negatively impacted by this than Zak Irvin, who was an excellent microwave last year and has struggled to initiate his own offense or find kickouts from his teammates. This leads to a pattern of frustration followed by contested shots off the dribble—not good eats for your offensive efficiency.
Irvin shook that against Indiana, finishing a few buckets around the basket that were set up by his teammates and finding small windows of space for his threes. He initiated a little offense himself. He was efficient. After, Beilein praised his improved "acumen for the game," and that's about right. This was also right, unfortunately:
But if there was one nagging frustration with Irvin on Sunday, it was his struggles to finish at the rim. With eight minutes left and Michigan down nine, the forward missed a fairly routine layup. A minute later, he went up for a layup with his right hand despite being on the left side of the rim, and the shot was blocked as a result.
“He’s got his head on right, and he knows that everybody has parts of their game they need to work on,” Beilein said. “He realizes what some of those are, and he’s working on them.”
Major points to the color guy for pointing that latter problem out immediately and informatively.
Anyway, priority one for the rest of this year is for the rest of the offense to pose enough of a threat to opponents that Irvin can either find open threes or, at the very least, closeouts. He can attack those; when he's just trying to straight up beat a guy he doesn't have the lateral mobility to do that without a bunch of spins and other such moves that bring help defenders into play.
MAAR bust. Freshmen are up and down and hoo boy was MAAR down in this one. His missed bunny after a steal was followed by another Irvin missed bunny and those buckets combined to rankle the remainder of the game, no more so than when Michigan ended up three points short on the scoreboard.
This is no doubt an adjustment period. Teams have seen what MAAR can do and have a scouting report on him; now it's up for Michigan to get MAAR playing better than he's scouted. One priority needs to be moving him from a guy who seems to make up his mind whether it's pass or shot before the drive to one who can find the open guys under the hoop when he draws help.
And then Doyle surges. (Also Donnal.) Meanwhile, Michigan's bigs kept moderately-big Max Bielfeldt (three minutes) on the bench for the first time in forever. Donnal put up seven points on four shots; Doyle had 15(!) on 8 shot equivalents. He was one made FT from having as many points as you can without an and-one or three pointer, on 19% usage in 27 minutes.
This has a lot to do with Indiana, which got a total of five minutes from guys bigger than a willowy 6'7".
Negative: even so they still got crushed on the boards. Doyle's trying to block shots that are not good shots to block: in the first half Irvin or Dawkins or MAAR had successfully contested a drive, forcing Indiana into difficult runner from five feet. It missed, but Doyle had tried to block it and his guy was there for an easy putback. Unless you are a pterodactyl man like Anthony Davis, that's a bad idea.
Evidence of offensive improvement. Michigan's last shot went through all five Wolverines before landing in MAAR's hands in the corner for a wide open look. It didn't go down, but to be able to execute that is something resembling progress.
Also, an alley-oop! It seems like forever ago when Michigan got two or three of those a game from Robinson.
[@ right: Patrick Barron]
Evidence they've got a ways to go. Blackmon (sigh) and Ferrell had a great sequence against the 2-3 in which Blackmon attacked, drawing both high defenders. Ferrell saw this and made a cut to the soft spot of the 2-3, receiving the pass and finishing and and-one against a highly disadvantaged Irvin.
That's not something we've seen much of from Michigan during their extensive opportunities to go up against a 2-3. Very, very rarely does anyone force the zone to react before attempting to get a pass inside the arc, and a lot of the time Michigan spends 20 seconds or so trying to make a pass to initiate their offense against a zone that hasn't been deformed or stretched.
Chatman thing. He did little in his ten minutes. This is something of an improvement. I did wonder what was going on on several possessions where he sat in the middle of the floor like he was flashing to the post against a 2-3. He brought a defender with him, which almost made it look like Indiana was running a 1-3-1. It was a confusing time.
Then I figured out that Indiana was just in man to man and Chatman kept flashing to the post because he didn't recognize that. This happened on three or four possessions and is another ominous sign about how far he has to go.
Must… fight… old man sportswriter… feels. SPOCK. I am not a fan of guys sitting back from their typewriters proclaiming some dude they don't know a scourge of society because he is a bit of a showoff. I think this is more reflective of the person writing it than the subject.
But, man, Troy Williams takes it to another level. Troy Williams flexes at his mom after he successfully pours milk in his cereal. Troy Williams goes to children's hospitals and mean-mugs at cancer patients because he is to date free of same. Troy Williams makes me an old man sportswriter and therefore I dislike him.
Hatch bits. ESPN story and video:
Thing I never want to see again. A Yogi Ferrell pull-up three. I would like him to not be at Indiana, please.
Oh, the faces you'll show. [Patrick Barron/MGoBlog]
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman's last-second attempt to tie from the corner summed up this Michigan team of late. Indiana looked like they'd win comfortably for most of the game, at times threatening to break the game wide open, but the Wolverines clawed back into it late, overcoming their porous defense with timely buckets.
The final possession played out similarly. Zak Irvin, whose hot hand brought M within striking distance, was clearly the first option, but IU wouldn't allow him a decent look. As the clock wound perilously close to zero, Michigan swung the ball around the arc, and suddenly there was MAAR, standing alone in the corner.
His try caught only iron, and we're once again left to commending Michigan's effort in a narrow loss against a better team.
This team, in its current form, just isn't talented enough to overcome too many mistakes. The first half featured Indiana jumping out to a lead in part due to too many Wolverine turnovers. The second half featured a couple critical missed layups—including MAAR blowing a breakaway that would've pulled M within two—and too many offensive boards for IU.
Michigan struggled throughout on defense, failing to keep Yogi Ferrell (18 points, six assists) out of the lane whether in man or zone; Ferrell did most of his damage in the paint, either swooping in for layups or creating open looks when the defense collapsed. Troy Williams posted 20 and 8 in an impressive performance highlighted by a couple thunderous dunks.
The failings on the other end meant Zak Irvin's 23-point output (9/16 FG) went in vain. Ditto Michigan's most productive performance from a big man in a long time, Ricky Doyle's 15 points on 5/5 FGs and 5/6 FTs. While the offense clicked in the second half, the hole dug in the first proved too deep to escape.
Facing their most difficult stretch of the season ahead, Michigan has a lot of positives to take from the last couple weeks. To actually start recording some signature wins, however, they must start shoring up the mistakes.
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.
Ace: Michigan's basketball season is almost certainly lost, but there's always the prospect of seeing one or two players transform under Beilein's continued tutelage, especially now that most of the freshmen have bee n thrust into major roles. Which freshman do you expect to show the most improvement over the rest of the season, and which do you want to see show the most improvement?
|Nnanna nnanna, nnanna nnanna, hey hey hey, that's pretty high. [photo: Upchurch]|
Dave Nasternack: Expect: Ricky Doyle. I think this is probably the most obvious choice. First, he's been starting for awhile, now, and has already shown improvement in various areas. I'm guessing he's leading in 'freshman minutes played?' If not, he's got to be close. So, just due to experience on the floor, he's got the be as comfortable in his role as any of the other contenders. Plus, the areas of improvement for Doyle are closely related to experience and mental understanding: positional awareness and some body control (almost always for bigs) vs. increased shooting %s, building muscle, better technique, etc. In addition to a couple of post moves, Doyle has shown patience inside and flashes of passion/GAF, which is exactly what you want to see to fuel his improvement. It would also be ideal if he could grab a few more rebounds.
Hope: While there is definitely something to be said for Aubrey Dawkins, I'm going to go with Kam Chatman. Chatman came into school with a ton of hype and excitement—not to mention a little more hair—but has only showed flashes of his potential in short bursts. While Chatman has looked lost both offensively and defensively for long stretches of this year, I do believe that he has the highest ceiling of any freshman on the roster. Plus, unless Donnal were to move down a position, Chatman is the ideal 4 on this roster. His length, size, and athleticism would make him the most ideal fit for the position that Beilein has had in his M tenure. Chatman will definitely have to improve his court awareness, positioning, and definitely his shooting consistency in order to do so, however. Based on losing his starting spot, a further decrease in minutes, and the eyeball test when he was playing more consistently, I'm guessing that his "growth jump" will come over the summer or in 15/16 rather than in the next couple of months.