Amongst The Trees

Submitted by Brian on January 30th, 2012 at 4:44 PM

1/29/2012 – Michigan 49, Ohio State 64 – 16-6, 6-3 Big Ten


No one expected Michigan to go on the road against Kenpom's #1 team and come back with a victory, so frustration and alarm was kept to a low simmer as Michigan tried and generally failed to find a way through the thicket of arms and athleticism that Ohio State presents. While OSU also goes "small" by deploying just one post-oriented player at a time—6'7" Deshaun Thomas is the second-tallest player OSU starts, and he's an NBA-sized wing slasher who rebounds at a lesser rate than Trey Burke—there is small, and there is "small."

Michigan is the former, Ohio State the latter. Kenpom has OSU's effective height 78th. They're not huge but they're well above average while still getting to play four-out, one-in. So if a game in which an insurmountable three-point halftime deficit ballooned to 15 by the end is dispiriting, it's also an indication of Michigan's future, in which a post is surrounded by a point guard and bouncy guys ranging from 6'4" to 6'7". Just now, that seems like a pretty good recipe for success.

But Michigan's post guy is not Jared Sullinger and with the exception of Tim Hardaway, Jr., their bouncy guys range from 6'2" to 6'2" and have a tendency to bounce their arms into fastbreaking opponents' heads because they're not bouncy, so expected outcomes come out as expected. At the half, it seemed like Michigan's point total was about what you would expect and Ohio State's was a ton of missed putbacks. That proved itself in the second half.

Oh well. This one was house money anyway.


Down the road, the team keeps scraping out narrow wins against good competition and is on track to meet expectations. The overall picture has some concerns. Ubiquitous Michigan basketball messageboardist MHoops1 compiled some stats on three pointers in league play that point to a burgeoning problem:

Tim Hardaway Jr., with 55, has taken more 3s in conference games than anyone else--he is second in 3s per game to Illinois' Brandon Paul (who is shooting just under 40% from 3). …

There are 8 guys who are shooting 20-29% from 3 in conference play--two are Hardaway at just under 22% (2nd worst overall in the conference…), and Smotrycz at just over 24% (4th worst overall, ahead of Walker, Hardaway and Keith Appling of MSU, who is shooting just under 23% from 3.

[Only players with 20 or more attempts are considered.]

I just don't know what happened to Hardaway's stroke. Last year it was the key component driving Michigan to their bid—they took just about as many threes but were third in the conference at hitting them. You can poke at all the psychological explanations you want; I don't buy them and am left with helpless shoulder-shrugging and an increased appreciation for Darius Morris's ability to create shots from everywhere.

No matter what the reason is, Michigan has the most prolific and least efficient three-point shooter in the conference now. This is a trend that extends to the team as a whole. Kenpom's conference-only numbers have Michigan first in three-pointers attempted (43%) and tenth (31%) in makes. Often poor percentages from three aren't that harmful since threes are worth more points (SCIENCE!). Here, though, each three point shot taken is 10% less effective than an average two*. That's a big difference when you consider the standard deviations involved here.

And then there's the free throws. There aren't any. (You may have noticed.) Michigan is dead last at getting to the line. Add it up and it's a parody of Beilein's reputation for perimeter-oriented fooferah.

No one is turning their nose up at 6-3 halfway through what seems like the slightly tougher half of the conference slate, or what looks like a third tourney bid in four years. Playing Ohio State drives home what looks like a ceiling for this edition of Michigan. To compare them, just line Zack Novak up next to DeShaun Thomas. Sometimes your physical limitations catch up to you, like when you're playing a Final Four contender. So it goes.

*[By this I mean the average three pointer is worth more than the average two. The D-I average 3 is worth 1.03 points; the D-I average two is worth 0.95 points. So you can be below average from three and still not hurt yourself too badly if you take a lot. Michigan far exceeds this margin of error.

I know fouls and getting to the line argue in favor of going inside and complicate this analysis considerably.]


And to think you could have pissed off Valpo's conference opponents. Man, do people hate Zack Novak. While in OSU's case it's standard "you elbowed our dude" lingering bitterness, it seems like 75% of previews express some sort of distaste for the gritmaster. That as much as anything else is a tribute to his career. If he ever has a plaque somewhere in Crisler he should be bleeding profusely and it should read "booed at every arena in the Big Ten for obscure reasons."

Free throw non-perturbation. To me it didn't seem like Michigan had a case for many more than the zero free throws they acquired before 37 minutes were gone. Maybe two or three—Craft obviously got Burke's follow through on a three he made anyway—but not so many that it would have had even a slight impact on the game. There was just little way through for most of Michigan's players. It's not hard to not foul a guy like Douglass when you can just follow him to the hoop and block his shot.

Sullinger attention == board obliteration. Michigan did an excellent job of rotating to Sullinger but all that defensive attention unbalanced Michigan's defense and allowed various Buckeyes to hammer the boards. OSU rebounded nearly 50% of their misses, which was death. Not sure what was the cause of the sudden inability to get the damn ball. Let's check!

Culprits in order: Hardaway, Douglass, Smotrycz, Sullinger double, Morgan, McLimans. Well… crap, try to fix that. I can't even claim that the Sullinger doubling was a major factor. It was just guys getting pushed out of the way and out-athleted by a 6-4 dude. Guh.

Smotrycz hat tip. Those possessions when he was matched up against Sullinger could have gone much, much worse. Still not contributing much on offense except in spurts. The small-ball lineup seems very effective defensively but lacks a certain something on offense.

Slightly tougher half in the rearview? I'd say so. Michigan had five at home and four away in the first half and must invert that in the second, but you can call the MSU, OSU, Indiana, Purdue, and PSU and Northwestern games a wash since Michigan will flip home and road with all those opponents. So then you've got:

  • DONE: Minnesota, Wisconsin, @ Iowa,
  • TO COME: @ Nebraska, Illinois, @ Illinois

Minnesota and Illinois at home are a wash. @ Nebraska is easier, and I'm not sure whether I'd play Wisconsin at home or Illinois on the road. Kenpom says definitely Illinois but it's been a little gaga for Wisconsin's nonconference blowouts all year. Anyway, I said slight. This section has been excessively defensive.

Iowa State watch. The Hoiberg Home for Lost Big Ten boys took out Kansas, which serves as a big, tourney-bid-validating win as long as they perform as expected down the stretch.



January 30th, 2012 at 4:55 PM ^

Is a good way to put it. Michigan at this point is pretty much a 6 man team (Stu, Hardaway, Novak, Burke, Morgan and Smotz) and yesterday 2 of them didn't have great games. 3 points combined for Novak and Smotz = not a game Michigan can win. We're a good team, but not a great team yet. That doesn't mean we can't go on a run, or beat some great teams when everyone plays well, but it means we can't compete with the elite teams when we have an off night.


January 30th, 2012 at 5:01 PM ^

...but I think if he had gone to Valpo he would have had a Tim Hardaway-like role there, rather than the Grit Mahorn role he fulfills as well as could be expected here.

Incidentally, my (admittedly biased) view is that we owe Valpo a debt on this one, because VU actually pulled his scholarship offer early in his senior season.  By his own admission, he had gotten big and lazy.  The loss of where he had figured he would go for a while really lit the fire and eventually got Beilein's attention.  

So thanks for that, Valpo!  PLUS it couldn't have hurt with the future recruiting of Mitch McGary (who had been a freshman at Chesterton when Novak was a senior), and GRIII (also from The Region).


January 30th, 2012 at 7:09 PM ^

it's hard to imagine, but I only used that word because I could remember that he had used that about himself, talking about the experience.  unfortunately i couldn't find it.

for what it's worth, at least, I found a game where he (as a junior) went up against VHS' Robbie Hummel (Purdue) and Scott Martin (Purdue then ND).

And one about how he, in the middle of a baseball trip, he asked to use their gym to practice basketball. 

love that kid.


January 30th, 2012 at 5:09 PM ^

First off, please forgive me for what I'm about to do, which is speak in NBA-announcer-level cliches.  That said...Last year, Morris was obviously the man.  This year, I think Hardaway feels like he should be the man sometimes but doesn't know exactly how to do that or when to do it.   In other words, I think we're seeing a guy who's not quite sure when or how to assert himself.  I believe that he's going through a sort of adolescent phase to his game, something that used to be normal for a sophomore.

I'd like to thank Mark Jackson for giving me the insight to say the above. 


January 30th, 2012 at 5:33 PM ^

Stu Douglass probably has the best looking shot on the team. It's just so effortless, comes off his fingertips with the perfect rotation. Hardaway hangs too much in the air and lets it go on the way down. Most of his misses are top of the key, off the dribble where he is guarded and falling back. He does better whenhe can jump INTO his shot from what I've noticed. I think he'll get it figured out by the BigTenTournament. At least we know he's not leaving for the NBA.


January 30th, 2012 at 7:43 PM ^

THJ has one of the prettiest 12-18 foot jump shots around and I have no idea why he is so enamored with the three.  Well, actually I do have an idea, in that Michigan's offense is in large part built around 3's, but I've always thought he shot too many.

Consider: last year in games against ranked opponents and MSU (i.e., big games), here are his #s:
- Syracuse, 1-8
- Purdue, 1-2
- Wisconsin, 0-3
- Kansas, 2-10
- OSU, 3-7
- Minn, 4-10
- MSU, 1-4
- OSU, 3-7
- Wisconsin, 4-7
- MSU, 2-6
- OSU, 2-9
- Duke, 1-6

While there are certainly some decent performances in there, he tended to save his few "lights out performances (e.g., 4-6 and 5-7's) for last year's dregs of the B1G (e.g., Iowa, IU).  When we were matched against top opponents (who presumbably can play more defense and there was more pressure for the shots to go down), he did pretty well occasionally, but usually was pretty bad.

My hunch is now that he's "the man" he's feeling more pressure that he's got to score in bunches (which certainly makes some sense; UM does not have a great deal of offensive firepower) and that's causing at least some of this consistently bad, while still voluminous, 3 point shooting.  I wish he would focus on driving to the hoop and pull up 12-18 foot J's (if those are in the offense), and leave most of the three pointers to the other guards and Smotz.


January 30th, 2012 at 9:50 PM ^

I'd love someone (not me) to go back to last year's film and examine how THJ worked off the Morris-Morgan pick and roll action. It seems like he's getting isolated a lot on the wing this year as Burke and Morgan work high pick and roll, and because teams are hedging so hard, his man hasn't generally had to get involved in defending the pick and roll. Therefore, when he gets the ball he's pretty stationary and has trouble creating out of such situations because he's not tremendously quick. He seems to be better (most players are) when he gets the ball with some momentum but apart from some curl action, the offense doesn't put him in motion too often.

I think Morris was also a better passer and penetrator than Burke (and a worse shooter) so Tim got more involved as Morris broke the D down and found him moving to open spots on the floor as the defense shifted. It also likely helped that teams weren't keying on him until late in the year.

This year, they are, and he also frequently gets the ball late in the shot clock, leading to some bad shots that are necessary to beat the clock.


January 30th, 2012 at 7:59 PM ^

Michigan has the most prolific and least efficient three-point shooter in the conference now.

Not the first time this has happened. Parody is a great word for it in relation to Beilein stereotypes. JB did change his offense a bit by adding the pick-and-roll, but when he failed to recruit efficient shooters here (Douglass and Vogrich have been nowhere near the assassins they were billed as) like he did at WVU, he should be changing his offense a whole hell of a lot more than he has.

He's a great defensive coach. He's a great program coach. But his offensive philosophy sucks, especially for the players he has had at Michigan.


January 31st, 2012 at 12:09 PM ^

Thanks, BRCE. I appreciate it. You know, I don't get much traffic on the blog, mostly family and friends, but I do enjoy writing on it. I'm a grad student in philosophy and it's an interesting challenge to take philosophical ideas and make them accessible for....

Oh, wait. You're being sarcastic. Well played, you clever devil. Sarcasm? On the Internet? Now I've seen everything!



January 30th, 2012 at 9:56 PM ^

If Morgan could hit a mid-range jumper from anywhere around the elbows he would be a game changer. And what if he could hit the three! Teams just leave him up there all by himself with no fear of him shooting.