The Breaks

Submitted by Ace on January 10th, 2014 at 2:34 PM

Terran Petteway, who'd already poured in 14 second-half points, blew past Nik Stauskas with disconcerting ease. While Zak Irvin helped in the paint to force a difficult scoop that caromed off the backboard, nobody boxed out Leslee Smith—who, per hoop-math, has 20 putbacks this season on 72.7% shooting at the rim.

Smith's tip-in attempt lingered on the rim for an eternity before rolling off the mark. Two subsequent swipes at the ball by an indistinguishable assemblage of arms couldn't get the ball closer. We know that feel.

Derrick Walton drilled an running halfcourt shot to finish the first half. He also plowed over Smith on a baseline drive to lay in the eventual winning points; on another day, when the fates aren't as favorable, that's a charge.

On a night when 2013-14 Jordan Morgan played the role of 2010-11 Jordan Morgan, the fates cast Leslee Smith as Jordan Morgan vs. Indiana, with Walton playing the part of an early-arriving Ben Brust. We've all seen this show before, and I prefer this director's interpretation.


Nebraska is not last year's Indiana, of course, nor are they Wisconsin, and this 71-70 win featured plenty to be concerned about. A road win in the Big Ten, however, is rarely a thing of beauty. For every poorly-defended Nebraska pick-and-roll, Michigan executed one on the other end. For every blown switch, a beautiful set out of a timeout. For every blown call on Nebraska, one against the Wolverines. The three crucial free-throw misses late were canceled out on the scoreboard by an end-of-half prayer.* These plays offset until a victor had to be determined, and in that critical final minute, Michigan benefited from the breaks of the game.


If Michigan could've done something, anything, to stop the pick-and-roll in the second half, this would've been a relatively easy victory, as the Wolverines played efficient offensive basketball from wire to wire—1.21 points per trip with a 68.0 eFG%. Glenn Robinson III had one of his best games as a Wolverine, confidently knocking down a triple from the wing on Michigan's first possession and going on to score 19 points on 9/12 shooting. He hit multiple pull-up jumpers, got to the hoop off the dribble, and made one of the biggest plays of the game when he purloined a rebound from an unsuspecting Smith, corralled the ball at midcourt, and broke free for a one-handed throwdown to give Michigan a late two-point edge.

The player most representative of this game was Jordan Morgan, without a doubt. Working the pick-and-roll with Stauskas like he once did with Darius Morris, Morgan dropped 15 points on 7/9 shooting, slipping screens with impeccable timing to get wide-open looks at the rim; he even knocked down a pivoting baby hook for good measure. However—whether due to Michigan's defensive strategy, a mid-game foot or ankle injury that briefly took him out of action, or simply being too slow to move his feet—he struggled to stay between Nebraska ballhandlers and the basket on defense, beat to the rim time and again.

On Nebraska's final possession, John Beilein lifted Morgan for Zak Irvin, allowing Michigan to switch on every screen regardless of who set it for whom. That worked initially with Irvin challenging Petteway's shot; it almost backfired completely when nobody was in position to grab the rebound. This is still a team looking for the right answers, and they haven't found all of them quite yet.

One thing is certain, and that's Nik Stauskas' role as alpha-dog. After a relatively quiet first half, Stauskas asserted himself down the stretch, not only as a shot-maker but as the team's best passer; his four assists don't convey how well he moved the ball, especially off the high screen. Yes, he uncharacteristically missed a pair of free throws with five minutes to play. He also scored 12 points on 5/9 shooting, turned the ball over just once while facilitating much of the offense, hit a dagger of a three-pointer prior to that trip to the line, and hit a late layup to give the Wolverines a two-point lead.

After a rough stretch, Caris LeVert provided a solid offensive performance of his own with ten points (5/8 FG) and five assists, creating buckets for himself and others with his now-signature herky-jerky forays into the paint. While it wasn't a totally clean game from him—three turnovers and some poor on-ball defense come to mind—his assertiveness with the ball and ability to find the open man were encouraging given his recent outings.

Walton, meanwhile, may have finally asserted himself as the no-doubt starter at the point. The halfcourt shot was more luck than anything else, but he played within himself, dishing out four assists to just two turnovers, spotting up when need be—drilling a key corner three early in the second half—and playing solid perimeter defense in addition to hitting the game-winner. Spike Albrecht noticably struggled to contest three-point shots in his eight first-half minutes and was limited to just four minutes in the latter stanza. Nebraska was 5/11 on three-pointers in the first half, with three of those coming against Albrecht. The Huskers went just 2/9 the rest of the way as Ray Gallegos (3/5 in 1H, 1/5 in 2H) couldn't get clean looks over Walton.


There are adjustments to be made, no doubt; Michigan's bigs got caught in no-man's land far too often trying to defend high screens, and the guards let their man get around them far too easily on many a drive. Despite this, however, the Wolverines escaped with a road win; their 3-0 Big Ten record has them tied atop the conference standings with Wisconsin and Michigan State. In a season when, like last year, the conference champion could be determined by a few bounces of the ball, Michigan caught their breaks at just the right time.

With trips to Madison and East Lansing looming later this month—not to mention hosting a revitalized Iowa squad in between—the team held serve when they desperately needed it. Don't be surprised if we look back on this game as a turning point after the season plays out.

*Before anyone takes this too literally, I know that's not how it works. Go ahead and post "3-9 is UNACCEPTABLE" now, because you are fundamentally right that Michigan shouldn't miss that many free throws; just remember to conveniently ignore that the Wolverines are 57th in the country—third in the Big Ten—at making them, and free throws are worth one point regardless of the time on the clock.


Naked Bootlegger

January 10th, 2014 at 2:39 PM ^

Morris to Morgan was an offensive staple a few years ago.  I think this will be a staple again.  Stauskas worked it to perfection last night.

I'd like to see us get into the transition game with Morgan more frequently.  This was another staple a few years ago, and it was revisited again in the Northwestern game for a layup.  Morgan can beat most bigs up and down the court, and easy baskets can be had.


January 10th, 2014 at 2:44 PM ^

Nice analysis. I'd only contest that the Walton 3 buzzer beater isn't just luck. That's something that's practiced, he took it in rhythm and timed it well with the clock. Getting it at the rim is the skill, the luck is that it wasn't two inches one way or another, but it wasn't just luck that it looked good the whole way.


January 10th, 2014 at 2:47 PM ^

FTs late do hurt more ("all worth 1 point"), right? Isn't it similar to the reasoning in why one goes for 2 earlier than later? Because the miss/make informs your strategy when you have more time to alter said strategy?


Great post. Just asking.


January 10th, 2014 at 2:54 PM ^

But the big reason you go for 2 earlier is because it improves your information, which informs your decision-making. Missing free throws isn't an information issue so much as a point issue.

In basketball, the team in the lead doesn't have that much in the way of strategic decisions (with limited exceptions(, other than "score as much as possible, stop them if possible."


January 10th, 2014 at 3:38 PM ^

But that is true whether you miss that free throw with 10 minutes left or 1 minute left. It will influence strategy, obviously, but in the way that any made or missed basket that leads to the current game situation would affect it.

In other words, swap a made free throw and a missed free throw, and the game looks the same for the coming possessions.

A more apt comparison to the two-point issue is when you're down 3 late, do you drive or look for the 3? That is a decision on which future possessions are going to depend. Missing a free throw isn't a decision. It'd just a thing that happens.


January 10th, 2014 at 3:20 PM ^

it was a charge.  Defender was outside the arc and set before Walton left the ground.  Even by the new block/charge rules I thought it was a charge and that we got a massive break.  I loved it, but I really think that is called charge 80% of the time.

And I am really not interested in how we can be 3rd is the Big Ten in free throws, all I know is that we be missing all kinds of free throws and that it is becomming a painful hallmark of this team. 


January 10th, 2014 at 6:26 PM ^

I'm not here to argue but I do think his torso and his momentum if you will (I know there's nothing about that in the rule book) was still moving to toward the sideline i.e. he wasn't "set".  Now, you're right, it was close because who the hell knows what each individual official will call in each individual circumstance.


January 10th, 2014 at 2:56 PM ^

You opened the yearly "are late game possessions worth more than early game possessions" debate. Oh, goodie.

FWIW, the answer is no. They are worth exactly the same. A possession with one minute left is worthe exactly as much as the first possession of the game. Math says so.


January 10th, 2014 at 3:01 PM ^

I hear you. Obviously you have more limited possessions in football. I guess I was thinking that a rash of missed early FTs would alter one's style a bit (more pressing, etc.), but fuck it, I don't argue with math. Particularly math from 2004, when this debate was probably relevant.


January 10th, 2014 at 3:06 PM ^

(And FWIW, I wasn't referring to you necessarily. This is a long-standing debate that is always relevant but never gets solved. It's basically the Black Hole Wars of basketball strategy, where the two sides argue "IT MUST BE" and "IT CAN'T BE." The only debate more deeply fought is #TeamFoul vs. #TeamDefense)


January 10th, 2014 at 3:16 PM ^

Math says just the opposite.  Look at the win probability charts.  A bucket with less time left swings the probabilities much more than an earlier bucket.  There's a reason the massive zig-zags happen late and never early.

If you're down by one with one second to go, and you score, that bucket basically guarantees the win.  If you're down by one with 35 minutes to go, and you score, that bucket does NOT guarantee you the win.  Now, I know the counter to that is this: You needed both baskets to win.  If you hadn't scored the basket with 35 minutes left then the last-second one wouldn't have mattered.  But hindsight is the wrong way to look.  In the moment is the way to look, because that's how the game is played.  If I miss the shot five minutes in, are we going to lose?  Maybe; we have other chances.  If I miss the shot with half a second left, are we going to lose?  Yes.  Because the answer to those questions is different, it naturally must follow that the two possessions are not equal.


January 10th, 2014 at 4:24 PM ^

Two problems with your argument:

  1. Yhe end-of-game situation is completely dependent on the earlier game situation. Make a 3 at the beginning of the game, assume the rest of the game proceeds ceteris paribus, and the value of a late free throw is completely different than it would be if you missed that early-game 3.
  2. It only makes a significant difference in certain situations (i.e. when the game is very close). Make a free throw in a 1 point game and it can have a HUGE impact. Make a free throw in a 5 point game and it will have a minimal impact. And again, the late game margin is completely reliant on the early game events.

Try this thought exercise. Take an average game and reverse the two halves. If performance became more valuable later in the game, then flipping the two halves would affect the outcome. But we know that isn't the case.

I get that late game possessions FEEL more important. And a buzzer-beater is, by definition, going to be more final than early shots. But that is just window dressing. Every possession is the same.


January 10th, 2014 at 4:54 PM ^

Yes, the end-of-game scenarios depend on the earlier ones, but that doesn't mean it follows that the earlier ones are just as valuable.

Also, yes, it's true that in blowouts, the end-of-game possessions do not swing the game as much as the end-of-game possessions in close games - but that doesn't change the indisputable fact that the biggest win-probability swings always occur at the end of close games.

Your thought experiment again operates off the fallacy of looking at the game in hindsight.  Coaches and players can't make decisions in hindsight.

Try this thought experiment.  Take the following assumptions in hand:

1) Calling a timeout to run an offensive play increases the chances that you will score on that play.

2) It is better to play ahead than play behind.

3) No possession is more valuable than any other possession.

Given this, why not burn all six timeouts on the first six possessions in an effort to gain the lead?  Every basketball coach in history** saves their timeouts until the end.  Was every single coach in history dumb and ignorant of basic math?  Of course not.

The obvious answer is that coaches inherently know their timeouts are more valuable at the end of the game.  Even if assumption #2 is wrong, if #3 were correct then timeouts would generally follow a pattern of being evenly distributed throughout the game.  They do not.  Coaches act in their self-interest, and their behavior reveals the truth.

**Except Pete Gillen.


January 10th, 2014 at 8:10 PM ^

They save them to the end because you don't know when you'll need them. Timeouts are a valuable thing for way more than just drawing up plays. They save possessions on loose ball scrambles and to avoid five-second calls on inbounds, and they allow a coach to stop an opponent on a run.

Bottom line, the win percentage graphs look like they do not because late possessions are worth more, but rather because there are fewer remaining variables and more available information. And, again, baskets are worth the exact same amount, so having three late points be worth more than three early points is just logically incongruous. 


January 11th, 2014 at 12:13 AM ^

And how often do you see early inbounds plays guarded so ferociously that a five-second call is a possibility, as opposed to late ones?  Those late-game possessions matter.  It's for that reason that timeouts are saved til the end.  You'd rather preserve a late-game possession than an early-game one.  Question: If there were six loose-ball scrambles on the first six possessions, would a coach use all his timeouts then?  Of course not.  That says he values the possibility of being able to stop the game later and preserve a later possession more than he values the possession two minutes in.

The win percentage graphs look like that because the probabilities change more.  That's their very definition.  Has nothing to do with available information.  If not "valuable" how else would you explain that a late-game basket can change the probability 25% or more, while early-game baskets do not?  Yes, there are "fewer remaining variables" as you put it, which is precisely what makes those late-game possessions more valuable.

I ask this: Say we win 90-50.  When it's 88-50, and we score one final basket in the last second, is that basket not utterly meaningless to the outcome?  It is, in fact, meaningless.  It could not change the outcome of the game nor even the probability, since 100% of teams with a 38-point advantage with 1 second left have won the game.  Calling all baskets equally valuable logically means that all 45 baskets were equally meaningless.  That doesn't make sense.


January 10th, 2014 at 4:18 PM ^

No, you only get significantly more national recognition and program juice as well as more great memories for your fans than a Big Ten regular season title (individual or shared) or a BTT title could ever give you.

Are you saying Indiana is happier with their season last year than we are because they got a "championship"?



January 10th, 2014 at 2:57 PM ^

It wasn't just that we went 3-for-9, it was that Nebraska went 11-for-12. More than anything, that is the reason the game came down to such a wild final possession. Outside of Walton's heroics, that should have been the focal point of the column IMO. That type of disparity in FT percentage is usually a great recipe for losing to a lesser opponent.



January 10th, 2014 at 3:05 PM ^

Can I just point out how much I like this team? It's verging on Zack/Stu levels of likability.

Ever since McGary went out they've played with a total chip on their shoulder- no win isn't big enough to celebrate and every basket is huge. Love it. The passion is infectious.


January 10th, 2014 at 3:09 PM ^

Yeah, we came out of a timeout and played dominating defense for one series & Walton went diving to the floor for a loose ball around half court, and I thought to myself, "Did Mitch McGary call these dudes during that last TO?! Great effort at that moment IMO.

Also, GRIII played with some fire last night! Loved the grunt during/after the alley-oop.


January 10th, 2014 at 3:12 PM ^

I fully acknowledge that this may be cogintive bias, but I feel as if teams shoot way better at the free throw line against us than their season averages. For example, I heard Arizona shoots 68% as a team, but couldn't freakin miss against us (until the last one which was on purpose).

As far as the game, the team showed mental toughness and poise in continuting to run the offense and not get discouraged when they didn't make stops. Lots to improve on the defensive end, but you'd always rather see that after a win than a loss. 


January 10th, 2014 at 3:20 PM ^

I love Stauskas's improved handle and greater assertiveness, but I miss all the spot-up attempts he got last year.  That's a drawback of having him as the go-to guy.  I'm hopeful Walton can take over as the primary distributer so Nik can still park himself in the corner from time to time.

El Jeffe

January 10th, 2014 at 4:36 PM ^

I was thinking the same thing last night. That's one of the many subtle (or maybe not so subtle) consequences of the loss of Burke--the pressure he put on teams by getting into the lane and the direct or hockey assists that wound up going to Stauskas.

Not sure if anyone has this info at hand, but I would love to see the % of Stauskas's FGs (both 2 and 3) that were assisted last year vs. this year. I bet it would be something like 60% last year to 30% this year.


January 10th, 2014 at 5:37 PM ^

Per hoop-math, 85% of Stauskas' threes last season were assisted. This year? 91%.

He is taking a slightly higher percentage of his shots inside the arc, but the returns on those shots have been very good, and his three-point percentage is up a couple points from last year (45.9% compared to 44.0%); eliminating some of those unassisted threes may be helping his shooting.

Also, it doesn't take too much to give him an opening to shoot. On one play last night, Walton tried to take his man off the dribble and got maybe five feet inside the arc—and nowhere near the paint—and the threat of the drive was just enough for Stauskas' man to sag off a tiny bit; Walton kicked it out, the shot contest was a split second late, and Stauskas drilled the three. His release is really, really quick.

Kilgore Trout

January 10th, 2014 at 3:21 PM ^

I am not yet totally convinced that Stauskas is the alpha dog on this team. He's made great strides and is a complete player, but if we needed one shot at the end of the game, I think I'd want it in Robinson's hands.

Yinka Double Dare

January 10th, 2014 at 3:39 PM ^

Stauskas is the alpha but Robinson is asserting himself in a major way, and it's something this team had to have to go anywhere even with McGary.  It's even more important with McGary sidelined.