That Was A Weird One
MAAR's deeply skeptical face. [JD Scott/MGoBlog]
Let's get this out of the way: that was a funky one. Michigan barely crept above 0.90 points per possession in a game they won comfortably (eventually). Montana's aggressive trapping on ball screens broke the offense's rhythm, as did an early flurry of whistles. After the game's very first media timeout, Beilein fielded a lineup of Jaaron Simmons, Jordan Poole, Charles Matthews, Duncan Robinson, and Jon Teske—essentially 1.5 starters with Robinson in there. If you went to bed early and only saw the box score today, you're probably quite confused.
The unusual circumstances make this game hard to judge, even before accounting for the lengthy second-half delay just as Michigan was getting rolling. I thought the offense was on the verge of taking apart the Montana trap when Zavier Simpson had to exit. While Jaaron Simmons and Eli Brooks both had strong shifts—more on that later—there was a longer adjustment period than necessary.
Montana coach Travis DeCurie credited Beilein after the game for both timely strategic adjustments and how well-coached the Wolverines are in general. The latter part kept them in good position while they figured out the former [via NCAA transcript, emphasis mine]:
To me, when I say someone is well coached, they don't beat themselves. You'll make mistakes. There's human error. But I can't recall one possession where they took a bad shot. There will be defensive breakdowns because the offense can manipulate things, but on the offensive end for them, I just can't remember someone taking a questionable shot and allowing us to get some momentum or maybe a low rebound or whatnot.
When they shot the ball, guys knew they were going to shoot it. And to me those are teams that don't beat themselves. And so I don't know how many teams are like that in this field. A lot of teams, they play, they fly around, they're aggressive. They give on maybe a questionable shot here and there, an error on aggression. I think this team plays very smart basketball. And when they play that way, it's just very difficult to manipulate things and make things happen in your favor.
Michigan's turnover avoidance, refusal to give opponents easy transition opportunities off bad shots, and elite (ELITE!) defense allow them to weather storms many other teams could not. Last night's first half went about as poorly as it could for the Wolverines, yet they still held a three-point halftime lead and pulled away for a comfortable win. That, more than anything else, is my takeaway from last night.
[Hit THE JUMP for Matthews unleashed, the backup point guards, and fun with split stats.]
(Mostly) Controlled Aggression
Quick passes to Matthews eventually broke Montana's trap. [Scott]
Naturally, the first game after we discussed Charles Matthews settling into an efficient 15-18%-usage role as a tertiary offensive option, Michigan faces a defense that all but forces him to take a starring role. Montana's traps got the Wolverines out of their normal high ball screen action; the extended pressure made them look for shorter passes to the wing, a tactic Beilein of course has found a way to tie into baseball:
What I love about what Travis has done with his team is they will guard ball screens -- we said they're going to do everything. So in two days we were trying to get ready for everything, and that was one of them, that they came out and trapped us hard.
We had a couple of different things we do about [that]. One of those is to go and hit them short. We call it actually short shop. We call it Barry Larkin for the great Michigan short stop who played with Cincinnati. So we hit Barry Larkin, and Barry Larkin made the plays.
Matthews played the role of Larkin to the tune of 20 points on 31% usage, his highest in any game since December 30th. While his 90 ORTG won't blow anybody away, his shot creation inside the arc kept the offense treading water, which was all they needed given the defensive performance. Not only did he make 7-of-10 two-pointers, he knocked down 6-of-8 free throws. As a bonus, he grabbed 11 defensive rebounds and played his usual quality D.
There were also five turnovers and an 0-for-3 mark from beyond the arc to remind us of Matthews' limitations. In this game, however, I didn't mind the turnovers as much as normal; Michigan needed someone to get aggressive and Matthews embraced that mindset. The tradeoff of some lost possessions was worth it in a game of first-to-50.
Other teams may try Montana's approach; it still looks like a potentially viable way to slow M's offense. Matthews stepping up is a good sign, however, and the team just got a 40-minute crash course in working around the trap.
Backup Point Guards: Extant, Productive
Unconventional but ultimately effective. [Scott]
Simpson's foul trouble tested Michigan's point guard depth earlier, and in a much more critical situation, than most anyone anticipated. After going pointless in the Big Ten Tournament, Jaaron Simmons entered and went a perfect 3-for-3 from the field. While he's not nearly on Simpson's level as a defender, there wasn't a significant dropoff on that end, and Simmons joined Matthews among Wolverines willing and able to attack the basket.
When Simmons needed a breather, Eli Brooks made an immediate impact. He started with a slick assist to Matthews off a baseline drive, followed that with a tough floater on another foray down the baseline, and grabbed a loose ball among some taller players to give M an extra possession. With no turnovers or major defensive breakdowns, you can't ask for much more out of a five-minute stint from your third point guard.
Since I gloated about my predictive abilities in this very post, I should point out I may have been very wrong about the first section.
Here's A Table
None shall pass. [Scott]
Via Bart Torvik, here are the top teams in the country since February 13th, since M's surprisingly high-scoring win at Wisconsin. You won't have to look far to find the Wolverines:
After yesterday's dominant defensive performance—the Grizzlies scored a paltry 0.70 PPP—the Michigan defense is up to third on KenPom, behind only Virginia and Cincinnati. That is the primary reason they've been arguably—and statistically—the best team in the country over the last month. DeCurie was at a bit of a loss after the game when trying to come up with a way his team could've cracked the Wolverines:
Q. Was there anything that you would have changed, Xs and Os-wise, heading into the game?
COACH DECUIRE: Yeah. I would have put a hoop in there that might have been a little bigger.
No. You know, I think you've gotta come in and play your style of basketball. You gotta do what got you here. And if you try to do anything different, you're not going to be aggressive, you're not going to play instinctively. And I thought we did that.
Our biggest issue was we win the paint. We broke even 26-26 in the paint. Our bigs go 3 for 11. 3 for 11. So the three guys that typically we would go inside and get some things in the paint from couldn't get it going. And there were stretches where I'll go small, spread them out and move.
This is a very, very good team. As you can see above, so is Houston. Brian will have the preview later this afternoon. I'm confident the Wolverines will provide much more resistance to Cougars star Rob Gray than San Diego State did last night.