After the collapse at Ohio State on Monday, there's been quite a bit of consternation among Michigan fans about the course of the season. The Wolverines sit at 7-3, and they're only 2-3 against viable competition, with their best win coming against the #82-ranked team on KenPom. If they don't at least come away with a split in their upcoming games against UCLA and Texas, there's good reason to worry about how this team is going to compile a worthy tournament resumé.
To get an idea of how the season could play out, I wanted to take a look at how John Beilein's Michigan teams have improved (or not) over the course of the season. I'm an idiot, however, so thankfully our very own Alex Cook had the same thought and could actually put it into action. Alex used the game score metric from Bart Torvik*—a 0-100 score for each game based on adjusted efficiency margin—to map out the in-season progression of Beilein's teams. This, for example, is last season's graph. The blue line tracks the individual game scores; the black line is a five-game running average; the gray line is the overall season trend. As you certainly guessed, the 2016-17 graph shows a great deal of late-season improvement:
Waltoning, The Graph
The first question that I had: was last year more the exception or the rule? Alex went through each season to get the answer. Positive numbers show in-season improvement, negative the opposite:
I'm about to get into much more detail, but the initial takeaway is we can't assume that Beilein is going to turn things around this season without a couple things breaking the right way. Using the above as a guide, it's time to take a look at the potential ways this season plays out.
[Hit THE JUMP for season scenarios with past precedent.]
Years That Are (Hopefully) Irrelevant
Let's get these out of the way. The links go to Alex's charts for each year.
2007-08: Beilein's first year, talent level way lower
2012-13: Final Four team with a NPOY at point guard
2013-14: Dominant team from the get-go
2014-15: Caris injury year #1 (though, notably, they did bounce back a bit)
2015-16: Caris injury year #2 (no bounceback this time)
Tim Hardaway Jr.'s growth in 2010-11 sparked a late-season surge. [Bryan Fuller]
Two seasons stand out as beacons of hope for this year's team, and they share a common thread: in-season breakouts from one player that raised the entire team's level of play. One is last season with Derrick Walton turning into an All-American level player for the final couple months. The other was 2010-11:
This is the team that started 11-9 overall and 1-6 in the Big Ten before a win in the Breslin Center got the team rolling, and they knocked off Tennessee in the tournament before losing a tight one to Duke. That season is largely remembered for the outstanding play of Darius Morris, who broke out of his cocoon to post the third-best assist rate in the country. Morris was good throughout the year, however. What really keyed this team's run was the emergence of freshman Tim Hardaway Jr., who started lighting up the scoreboard in late January and didn't stop, giving the team the reliable top scoring option it sorely lacked.
Does this team have a path to this level of improvement? Yes, though it requires a couple of things breaking just right.
Point guard play. Both of the previous Michigan teams cited here got stellar point guard play. That won't happen this year, but they can improve dramatically from where they're at right now. Based on how things have played out, I think Beilein needs to go forward with Eli Brooks as his primary point guard and give Jaaron Simmons every opportunity to earn more minutes. Using data from Hoop Lens, I looked at how Michigan has performed in their five games against real competition with each of the three point guards on the floor. These are team stats, not individual stats, and they tell quite a story (PPP = points per possession):
|Possessions||PPP Differential||Offensive PPP||Defensive PPP||Off eFG%||Off TO%||Def eFG%||Def TO%|
If you've thought "man, the offense dies when Simpson is out there," the numbers back that up—the team shoots far worse and turns the ball over much more often when he's on the court. While Simpson, I believe deservedly, has the reputation as the best defender among the three, his impact on that end doesn't come close to making up for his lack of offensive punch. I'm ready to see Simmons get more than a short stint or two per game to show what he can do, even if that comes with more defensive lapses than Beilein would like (and Simmons definitely has some of those).
Unless Simmons breaks out in a big way, I think the team's best path to success is leaning on Brooks. Matthews and MAAR can handle much of the ballhandling/distribution and Brooks has proven to be the best off-ball player; the offense flows well when he's in the game and he looks passable as a defender, even if I don't think he's better than Simpson like the numbers above suggest. Perhaps most importantly, he takes care of the rock, and the other two PGs have struggled in that regard.
More of this, please. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
A major breakout player. There are several candidates here, at least. Charles Matthews and Moe Wagner both have the ability to play with far more consistency. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has taken well to more of a distributor role and could start putting up big numbers when his outside shooting corrects itself—he's shooting 28% from three when his career number is 35%, and his ability to create his own shot off the dribble continues to be an asset. There's still hope Simmons starts producing in a similar fashion to how he did at Ohio, even if that fades by the game.
I'm zeroing in on three primary breakout candidates, though. That same Hoop Lens data shows that Jon Teske is by far Michigan's most impactful defender; the Wolverines have a 40.9 defensive eFG% when he's on the floor; the only other rotation player with a mark below 50 is Jordan Poole, who's benefiting from playing a lot of his minutes with... Jon Teske. While there's a clear offensive dropoff from Wagner to Teske, the gap in defense is currently even wider. Getting Teske more time, especially if Wagner proves capable of playing some minutes at the four, should be a major priority; he singlehandedly changes how teams have to go about scoring on Michigan in the halfcourt.
Another major breakout candidate is Poole, who was riding high off his 19-point outburst against Indiana but got only eight minutes against OSU. With Michigan's current shooting struggles, they need Poole's deadeye three-point marksmanship, and while he can play a relatively limited role this year (think freshman Zak Irvin, designated gunner), he's flashed the ability to be more than Just A Shooter™.
Not only would more effective, extended play from Teske and Poole help the team in a vacuum, the added lineup flexibility they could provide would help Beilein get better matchups for Duncan Robinson, whose best role is still as an off-the-bench gunner. That brings me to the third potential breakout player: Isaiah Livers, Robinson's current backup. Livers isn't shooting well yet, but he's got a good-looking stroke, and while he's had his freshman moments on defense he's still grading out better than Robinson; meanwhille, he adds more upside as a finisher and rebounder. The best-case scenario for this team is Livers improving to the point that Robinson can once again be the team's sixth man.
Solid Outcomes Of Some Relevance
A couple more Beilein squads showed in-season improvement, but I'm not sure how relevant those years are to this season. The 2008-09 team, Beilein's second in Ann Arbor, got most of their improvement from getting comfortable in the system. There is one strong parallel, however. This team also had a very unsettled point guard situation; eventually, Beilein went away from Kelvin Grady in favor of the steadier CJ Lee, and that helped the team finally snap their NCAA tournament drought.
The 2012 team somehow won a share of the Big Ten title despite starting a guy who didn't really fit at the four (Zack Novak) and a true freshman point guard. That true freshman, however, was Trey Burke. As much as I like Eli Brooks, he's not Trey Burke.
Let's Hope This Isn't The Parallel
Things could get ugly if parallels to 2009-10 continue. [Campredon]
Michigan fell back to earth hard after Beilein's first tournament team. The 2009-10 squad came close a couple times but couldn't tally more than one top-100 victory in non-conference play, and they limped to a 7-11 Big Ten record. They started the season mediocre and finished there:
Unfortunately, there are some foreboding connections between that squad and this one.
Poor point guard play. For as good as Darius Morris was a sophomore, he simply wasn't ready for a starter's role as a freshman. Despite major differences in stature, Morris's statistical profile wasn't too different from Zavier Simpson's: very low usage, higher turnover rate than assist rate, awful outside shooting. (I know Simpson has shot okay from three this year but opponents are leaving him all alone out there and it's killing spacing.) Morris needed a full year before he was ready to run an efficient offense; if this year's PGs need a similar timetable, Michigan is probably missing the tournament.
Below-average shooting. This year's team is shooting 32.5% on three-pointers, which would be the worst mark for a Beilein team by at over 2.5 percentage points since... you guessed it, 2009-10, when they shot a woeful 29.7% from beyond the arc. That team also ran its offense through a wing and a stretch big; Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims both finished in the 30% range on triples. Charles Matthews plays a similar style to Harris and has similar shooting numbers. That's a pretty tight fit.
There's reason to believe Michigan's shooting will improve. Wagner, the Sims parallel in this comparison, is at 34% on threes after hitting 39% of them last year, and he's missed a number of open looks. Robinson and MAAR are both shooting well below their career percentages. Brooks is a solid 7-for-20 so far this year and looks like he'll be a good spot-up shooter. Poole should give the team a major shooting boost with more playing time.
I'm still nervous, though. There isn't a Derrick Walton or Nik Stauskas on this team who can nail triples off the bounce. Walton's constant threat, and the added threat of his two-man game with Wagner, spread defenses out so Wagner and MAAR and Robinson could get great looks. It's possible that without a major scoring threat at the point, shooting numbers stay down. The best way around this is probably continuing to develop Matthews as a drive-and-kick threat; Michigan has gone away from that a bit in the last few games and it's hurt them.
Poor interior defense. Michigan's two-point defense ranks fairly well right now but with every possession Wagner faces a post-up that number seems to go down. This team is playing either Robinson or Matthews at the four for the most part; the alternative is a true freshman. The 2010 team didn't have a rim protector in the starting lineup and had the 6'4" Novak as the starting power forward. They finished 287th in two-point defense. It won't get that dire for this year's squad, but I could see a backslide in two-point defense coming (M ranks 82nd right now), and that's something they may not be able to afford. C'mon, Teske.
This is where we get into some feelingsball territory. Based purely on roster composition, talent, and Beilein's track record, I think this squad is closest to being in the middle category, and I lean more towards them having a late-season breakout than staying stagnant all year—this team has a lot more bullets in the chamber than the 2009-10 team.
I get hung up on the schedule, however. After the LSU loss and subsequent loss of a third game against a D-I team in Maui, Michigan doesn't have a ton of resumé wiggle room. Saturday's home game against a 44th-ranked UCLA squad is as close to a must-win as you're going to get in non-conference play; if they lose that one, the ensuing trip to Texas falls under the same category. Unless Michigan goes on a real run in conference play, the Big Ten could hold them back; it's looking like a mediocre conference this year, and they lose a couple shots at marquee wins because MSU doesn't visit Crisler this year (thanks, Delany) and they don't travel to Minnesota.
As it stands, this is a bubble team whose tournament fate is going to rest on the outcome of one or two games. This may finally be the year where Beilein's scheduling approach keeps his team out of the tournament; I also know better than to doubt his ability to make some remarkable things happen as the season goes along, and it's far too early to write this team off. I'm going to take the semi-optimistic (shocking to most of you, I know) and guess that Brooks, Poole, and Teske settle into roles that help this team find its way into the tourney in the 8-12 seed range.
The Distant Future, The Year 2019
I'm trying to do less writing that's aimed at the lunatic portion of the fanbase, but I do want to quickly address the long-term concerns that were voiced after the OSU loss. This certainly won't rub anyone the wrong way: this upcoming stretch of basketball sets up a lot like the football program's.
That is to say, this is a bit of a transition year, and there's potential for next year to be phenomenal. The only seniors in the current rotation are MAAR and Robinson, who should have ready-made replacements in Poole and Livers. (Simmons will also graduate.) Wagner still has many of the same problems that kept him out of the NBA Draft last year; nbadraftnet's most recent 2018 projection has him as the final pick of the first round, and if you remember last year his stock fell late in the year when his defense and rebounding got exposed in the postseason. Charles Matthews isn't yet on the 2018 draft radar; nbadraftnet has him as the #22 pick in the 2019 draft.
Meanwhile, a reminder that the 2018 recruiting class looks like it'll be one of Beilein's very best:
Brazdeikis and Johns should be instant-impact types, and DeJulius could push Brooks and Simpson at the point. With or without Wagner, Michigan will have depth and size in the frontcourt. They'll have shooters, slashers, and a true rim-protecting center.
I know preaching patience can get tiresome. Still, it shouldn't be too hard to ride the ups and downs of this season given last season's incredible run and the potential for even bigger things next year. John Beilein has been the right coach for this program, is still the right coach for this program, and will be the right coach for this program as long as he wants to be.
[*If you're not familiar with Torvik's site, it's essentially free KenPom with many more ways to play with the data. I can't recommend it enough if you're the type to play around with numbers.]