Irvin or Robinson?
Choosing between defense and offense. [Left: Campredon; right: Barron]
I put out a call for hoops mailbag questions over the weekend. A theme emerged:
With Duncan Robinson's semi-emergence on defense (feels weird saying that), why is Coach Beilein not inserting him into the clutch-time lineup for Zak Irvin? I live in constant fear of Irvin hero-ball and I just don't trust him to make shot these days, let alone the right decision.
I'd feel much more comfortable with a Walton-MAAR-Robinson-Wilson-Wagner lineup offensively at the end of the game, and if the defense only takes a small step back isn't it worth it?
The first two questions are slightly different from the third. To address those first: Zak Irvin is going to remain in the starting lineup. I agree with that choice because of the difference Irvin makes on defense. I disagree with the premise in the first question; the defense can get substantially worse—we all saw as much in January—and Irvin is a big reason why Michigan has improved on that end.
Irvin's versatility on defense is more important than people seem to think. He can do everything from stay in front of two-guards to play passable post defense; did we already forget about this? (And this? And this too?) Michigan doesn't have another wing (DJ Wilson, if you're inclined to count him, excluded) with anything resembling Irvin's combination of strength and quickness; his presence allows M to switch on defense without creating too many mismatches. He's one of Michigan's better on-the-ball defenders, too.
Robinson has made strides on defense; he's still far from a good defender. SI posted anonymous coach quotes today on several potential tourney teams. From the Michigan section, which was critical but fair:
If [senior guard Duncan] Robinson is in the game you want to attack him defensively. Everybody knows that.
Robinson hasn't been caught out of position as often as he was earlier in the season. He's still susceptible to being attacked off the dribble by quicker guards/wings and he doesn't have Irvin's strength to hold up when he's switched onto a post player. Yes, Robinson is the superior offensive player; Irvin, in my opinion, has as much of an edge on defense.
A straight-up comparison between the two isn't sufficient; this is, after all, a team sport. You can gameplan to hide a struggling offensive player, especially when the rest of the offense is clicking like Michigan's. Irvin, in fact, is playing a decreased role in the offense over the course of this slump. This mathematical approach isn't perfect, but Irvin averaged a 27% usage rate over M's first seven conference games, with a high mark of 32% (Maryland) and a low of 21% (Illinois). That average is down to 17% over M's last seven games, in which he's surpassed the 20% only three times, topping out at 24% in the Wisconsin win; he's gone as low at 8% in that span, using only five possessions in the MSU win. Walton and MAAR have been able to pick up the slack.
It's much more difficult to hide a weak defender; you don't get to choose what set the opposing team runs. Robinson has been such an effective offensive player this season in part because John Beilein can cherry-pick his matchup on both ends. Robinson wasn't nearly as efficient as a starter last year (107.7 ORating in B1G games) compared to what he's done as the sixth man this year (122.8 ORating in B1G); while correlation doesn't equal causation, I don't believe that's a coincidence.
If Irvin continues to take on big late-game possessions—I'll admit I cringed when he waved off Derrick Walton in a second-half late-clock situation at Minnesota—then I wouldn't mind seeing Beilein use Robinson over Irvin in certain late-game situations, as Christian suggests, especially if he can go offense-defense with his substitutions. Benching Irvin is a step too far; Michigan still has the best offensive efficiency in the conference with him playing 89% of the available minutes, and he's played a major role in the defensive improvement of the last month. Another stat of note: Robinson averages 22.3 minutes per game in Michigan's seven conference losses; he's at 17.6 in their seven conference wins.
[Hit THE JUMP for the path to the tourney, Minnesota technical explanation, and more.]
(1) Win The Easy Ones
For RPI purposes, M could use a strong finish from Wisconsin. [Bryan Fuller]
I think so. Despite to loss at Minnesota, the last week was a net positive for Michigan's tournament chances. They're the top ten-seed in the latest update of the Bracket Matrix with eight at-large teams, including a Michigan State squad that just lost Eron Harris for the year, in the field behind them. They're a nine-seed to both CBS's Jerry Palm and ESPN's Joe Lunardi, both of whom have updated their projections to account for the Minnesota loss, as well as on Crashing The Dance. SI's Michael Beller thinks the above scenario should be enough to get Michigan in the tournament:
Michigan’s three-game winning streak came to an end when they lost at Minnesota in overtime on Sunday, but the Wolverines likely made their season over the last two weeks. Those three straight wins included impressive showings against fellow bubble teams Michigan State and Indiana, and a headline-grabbing triumph over Wisconsin. They won’t get a ton of help from their RPI, which is just outside the top 50 for now, but they’re 27th on kenpom.com. The Wolverines have two wins against tournament locks, Wisconsin and SMU, and one loss outside the top 100. They’ve put themselves in a position to get an invite simply by staying the course. So long as they win the games they’re supposed to, they should go dancing.
ESPN's Eamonn Brennan concurs, saying "the Wolverines' defeat at the Barn on Sunday need not be regarded as even a half-step back from the three-game winning streak (over Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin) that got them off the fringe and into the bracket over the course of the past two weeks."
My main concern is the NCAA selection committee's continued use of RPI, which ranks Michigan just 55th. With Wisconsin slipping to 24th, the Wolverines are in danger of losing a quality win in the RPI 1-25 metric, and the only pre-BTT chance to make up for that is on Sunday against Purdue. They should be fine as long as they take care of Rutgers and Nebraska on the road; they can feel truly good if they add one more win, either against Purdue or Northwestern, before the conference tournament.
Let me preface this explanation from MLive's Brendan Quinn, who covered the game and asked for clarification on the technical, by pointing out that because of the raised court at The Barn the only way for a coach to talk to his team is to jump up onto the apron:
Michigan was also called for technical issued -- it's 28th total foul -- in the second half. With 4:39 remaining and Michigan down 58-57, Mark Donnal was called for a foul when Minnesota's Amir Coffey appeared to fall down. Beilein, livid, yelled to the floor, then paced down the sideline. Referee Ted Valentine called a technical on the Michigan bench, later telling Big Ten Network that an assistant, Saddi Washington, jumped up to the apron of the elevated floor at Williams Arena.
Asked in his postgame press conference for the explanation he was given by officials, Beilein said: "How do I say this without throwing anyone under the bench? It wasn't on me."
MLive requested a comment or clarification regarding the technical. Via a Minnesota spokesman, the Big Ten stated that the technical was a judgment call and, thus, the night's head official, Rob Riley, would not be made available for comment.
Surprise! Ted Valentine got his TV Tighty Whities in a bunch, nobody is accountable for anything, and the college basketball world keeps spinning.
Next Year's Defense Could Be... Good?
Added bulk would help Wagner's post defense and rebounding. [Barron]
I have an odd sense of comfort about the defense after the last several games, and even more so when thinking about next year’s team. Am I crazy or am I crazy?
X replacing Walton would be an upgrade and additional years of experience in Donlon’s system for Rahk/Wilson/Wagner should make them pretty effective. While losing Irvin on the wing will be a setback, the potential of Charles Matthews seems like he could cover what is lost.
I’m thinking next year could potentially be Beilein’s best defensive team at Michigan… for however much that means. Am I way off-base?
I must be taking crazy pills, too, because I agree with this premise. Xavier Simpson, if he can cut down on fouls, will be a better and more disruptive defender than Walton; Matthews can hopefully cancel out the loss of Irvin; most importantly, another year of strength and conditioning—and Jon Teske getting comfortable in the system—should go a long way towards shoring up the interior defense.
"Beilein's best defensive team" is, of course, a relative measure: only two of his Michigan squads (2010-11 and 2013-14) have cracked the top 50 on KenPom, and they finished in the high 30s. The combination of two athletic bigs, one of whom (Wilson) has major shot-blocking potential, and Billy Donlon's coaching could get them into that range again. This year's team is on pace to record their highest turnover rate since 2010; it's feasible for them to maintain that aggressiveness while making gains with more sound positional defense.
Listed at 5'11", Which Means I'm 8'4"