3/5/2017 – Michigan 93, Nebraska 57 – 20-11, 10-8
This is not a game column.
God DAMN, Derrick Walton. There was a point last night where Derrick Walton took a terrible shot with verve and élan and it went in and I was neither mad at the shot nor surprised at the outcome. The rest of his night was on that level: 18 points, 16 assists (a program record), 5 steals, and... sigh... one rebound. Walton missing a triple-double because of insufficient rebounds is a killer.
Also killer: Derrick Walton. He is now taking those Chauncey Billups transition pull-up threes and I love them even when they do not go down. He is efficient inside the arc for the first time since he was a freshman, and he's doing Trey Burke things, and he's making himself a verb. If I say a senior has "gone Walton" you know what I mean. Not that anyone is likely to have such a transformation again.
I have gotten in the occasional twitter fight with Minnesota fans who are arguing that Nate Mason should be first-team All Big Ten, and I would just like to state for the record that any such assertions are insane homerism. The only thing Mason has on Walton is volume, and that volume is underwhelming: he's shot 268 twos at a 38% clip this year.
Well then. Michigan's 36-point road annihilation of Nebraska ends their regular season and confirms Michigan as one of the weirdest teams in the country. It also conjures a hypothetical: would you rather be a nine seed that plays like a six or a six seed that plays like a nine? The former team wins a lot of blowouts and drops close games; the latter wins a disproportionate share of close games.
Being a six seed that isn't quite as good would feel better. Michigan is the nine because of their record in games decided by five or less: 3-6. Last year's team was 6-1 and still slid into Dayton. Also last year's team finished the year losing six of their last nine. Michigan's inverted that, albeit in a much worse Big Ten.
So either nearly the same crew of players went from super clutch to not clutch or this is a much better team that doesn't look like one record-wise because their point distribution across games was suboptimal.
An illustration. Nobody really doubts Michigan's sea change on defense anymore. Nonetheless, Nebraska provided an easy before-and-after photo for Beilein: the game at Crisler in January was in the immediate aftermath of the Maverick Morgan White Collar Incident; Michigan won a barn-burner 91-85. Nebraska shot 59% from two and 50% from 3, with Tai Webster torching Michigan for 37.
Yesterday, Webster was held to 8 points; Nebraska shot 53% from 3 and was just 2/15 from three. Ace and Alex have mentioned this before and it bears re-emphasizing after a game where Michigan gave up just 15 attempts from behind the arc: a big part of three point defense is keeping them from being launched in the first place, and Michigan is suddenly very good at that.
A selection of team D stats from last year to this year, with major shifts bolded:
Michigan's now slightly better than they were a year ago because they've offset big declines in rebounding and three-point percentage allowed with more turnovers forced, better free throw D (high five!), and a severe restriction on opponent threes. Even last year's team, which was dead last in the league in 2PT% D and right on the NCAA average for 3PT% D, gave up more points per three attempted than per two.
Obviously this is not a complete picture of the value of two-pointers since you're much more likely to draw free throws inside the line, but in case you've missed the last 20 years of basketball it remains the case that three is more than two even in extreme environments. Michigan's closeout competency surge is the biggest effect of hiring Billy Donlon: Michigan has never (never!) been in the top 100 in that stat under Beilein, and now they're in elite company.
Why Michigan's rebounding has declined is a bit of a mystery. It's mostly the same crew playing with the exceptions of DJ Wilson and Mo Wagner. Those two guys are replacing either wing types or Michigan's 2016 centers, who were Mark Donnal and Ricky Doyle. Both of those guys had DREB rates barely over 10%. IE: they were not good rebounders. I maintained last year that Doyle was good at boxing out while letting others grab the ball; Ace theorized that Michigan's stronger closeout game has taken guys away from the basket.
Dunno. Area for improvement next year.
The volume of shift. Ace didn't want to round this and I don't either. Michigan's defense post-Nebraska-torching: 0.998 points per possession. That's a 12 game sample against much better competition* than the bad old days and would have been fourth in the league.
Perspective: Michigan's D improved just as much as Derrick Walton did after Maverick Morgan.
*[That ugly five game stretch to start the conference season is even uglier when you consider that it came against five opponents who were #3, #8, #11, #12, and #13 in offensive efficiency.]
Don't look at it. Use your peripheral vision. Zak Irvin's miserable stretch ended after the Indiana game. Since then he's been middling, hitting 53%/35% from the field on third-banana usage and helping Michigan's team-wide defensive renaissance. With Walton emerging as the team's alpha dog and Wagner either running things inside or throwing entire defensive systems into disarray ("Let's switch bigs on to Walton" –Tim Miles), third-banana, doesn't-dribble-out-half-a-shot-clock, zero-hero-ball Zak Irvin has re-emerged into an asset. Even if there's like one or two hero-balls in there.
Also in post-Maverick surges. MAAR is quietly the sixth-most efficient player in conference play. There was a point midseason where everyone seemed pretty mad at him, including Beilein. That seems like a long time ago, what with MAAR shooting 56/49 in Big Ten play, with many of those two-pointers difficult late-clock takes to the bucket when Michigan can't get anything else going.
One of the key questions on next year's offense is "how does MAAR maintain his efficiency at much higher usage?" He's at 17% now and will probably tack on 5% next year—that's a big leap. Pretty well if he just up that assist rate, I think. MAAR's done something pretty difficult for a guard: his career shooting percentage inside the arc is higher in conference play than it is over the course of the season, for three straight years. The kind of shots he gets are good ones.
Graham Couch time! It's been a minute since we checked in with the only beat writer on the planet who thinks Martin Luther King Day is for lazy people. It takes time to regather yourself after such a take and find the next thing you're going to be spectacularly, inanely wrong about. Couch rises to the occasion:
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – If Michigan State is left out of the NCAA tournament this month, MSU’s non-conference schedule next season should be a who’s who of the SWAC and MEAC, with a couple mid-level MAC and Missouri Valley Conference teams sprinkled in to give the illusion that competition matters.
MSU is in line for a bid mostly because they successfully gamed the RPI by losing to good teams. That's how they're one spot behind Michigan in that metric despite a 25-spot gap in Kenpom, two fewer wins, and the same conference record. MSU beat one nonconference team of consequence, Wichita State; Michigan beat Marquette and SMU. MSU also lost to Northeastern. The only reason to project those teams at or near the same seedline is because the NCAA is still relying on the archaic RPI, and the RPI has rewarded MSU for losing to good teams.
What would the SWAC-and-MEAC schedule do to Michigan State's RPI? Annihilate it. The worst thing you can do as a college basketball team looking to game the system is play teams ranked 300+. Graham Couch's argument is "if the NCAA puts MSU in the NIT, MSU should throw a fit... and put themselves in it." I can't let this zinger languish on Slack:
By and for juggaloes.