Over the last several years, offenses have moved towards the spread ball screen — usually a pick and roll — as the base action, either with plays designed to generate those types of looks or in late clock situations. With Darius Morris running the show, John Beilein’s motion offense morphed into more of a pick and roll attack. Trey Burke, a bonafide superstar, took that offense to the next level. Michigan’s had several excellent ball screen guards, and Moritz Wagner added a new dimension with his versatility and ability to read the play as the screener. Spacing has never been a huge issue, as Beilein’s always prioritized three-point shooting.
Michigan’s still reliant on the ball screen game, and opponents must be able to slow down those actions in order to have a chance of upsetting the Wolverines. Only one team has been able to beat Michigan thus far: Wisconsin held them to just 0.82 points per possession, and plays that I charted as ball screens generated 0.92 points per possession (far below Michigan’s typical ball screen output). I charted 40 possessions in which ball screens were the terminal action — plays that ended in a shot attempt, turnover, or a foul — which accounted for 61% of Michigan’s total possessions.
I tried not to include dribble-handoffs, but may have inadvertently included a few. Michigan didn’t run much of that action in this game, and it could be a good option in the rematch. There isn’t much functional difference between a ball screen and a dribble-handoff, but the defense could have to cover it a little differently.
Anyways, here’s how Michigan did on ball screens:
- 53 ball screens
- 10-19 on twos
- 5-14 on threes
- 2-4 on free throws
- 5 turnovers
- 37 points on 40 possessions
Here’s the chart:
[Analysis, clips, etc after the JUMP]
Since I didn’t write the recap, I didn’t take notes during the game (I was on vacation and left the beach to watch in a bar — a bad move), but I did notice two interesting dynamics in Michigan’s ball screen game while watching live. Wisconsin executed the same coverage regardless of personnel, and they had sophomore stretch big Nate Reuvers guarding Michigan’s fives instead of All-American center Ethan Happ, who guarded Ignas Brazdeikis.
Initially, I thought that Wisconsin elected to guard Iggy with Happ in an effort to give the freshman scorer an unusual look defensively. After watching the film, charting the ball screens, and compiling the numbers, I think that Wisconsin actually was choosing Reuvers as its primary ball screen defender instead of the more slow-footed Happ. Happ is reputed to be a top notch defensive player, and the advanced metrics certainly agree, but Reuvers was the more essential presence in this game.
If my theory — that the 4/5 defensive swap was because Wisconsin really wanted Reuvers guarding ball screens and was willing to leave Happ out of position on Michigan’s top scorer — is correct, it speaks to how much the Badgers emphasized ball screen defense. If my theory is wrong, and Wisconsin wanted to throw Happ at Iggy… it worked. He went scoreless and never looked comfortable. Whether that’s repeatable in a rematch is tough to say. I do think that the theory is right though. Somebody should ask Greg Gard about it at the post-game presser if they do it in the rematch. I could be wrong.
Reuvers as Defender
- 34 ball screens
- 5-9 on twos
- 4-13 on threes
- 2-4 on free throws
- 2 turnovers
- 24 points on 26 possessions
Reuvers at the five was a surprise (at least to me) and he played well, but Wisconsin’s staple defense to defend ball screen action wasn’t a surprise at all. The Badgers are consistent: the on-ball defenders go over ball screens, and the big executes a “drop” coverage. This extensive and useful post describes that coverage in detail, but defines it as:
A pick-and-roll defense in which the defender guarding the screener greets the ball-handler at or below the level of the screen until the ball-handler’s defender gets back in front of his original man.
Michigan saw this defense on 72% of its ball screens, not counting plays when the on-ball defender switched onto the big following that coverage (usually it was Brad Davison, but it only happened a few times).
Over and Drop Coverage
- 38 ball screens
- 7-13 on twos
- 4-11 on threes
- 2-4 on free throws
- 4 turnovers
- 28 points on 30 possessions
The first ball screen I charted was a Zavier Simpson - Jon Teske back screen and pop into a quick reversal for a Jordan Poole - Teske pick and roll. What Poole sees on this play is typical.
Teske approaches from the middle for a pick and roll.
Khalil Iverson (who’s obscured by Poole in this screenshot) goes over the screen; Reuvers gets in front of Poole and starts to retreat; Teske screens, then rolls to the rim.
Davison makes the right play and leaves the strong-side corner to “tag” Teske; Reuvers tries to contain Poole; Iverson recovers.
Look at how congested the paint is. Davison takes away Teske, the roll man, and leaves Charles Matthews open for three. Poole makes the right play and kicks it out to Matthews, who eventually runs another ball screen (that Wisconsin switches) and kicks it out to Iggy, who isolates and misses a three (after an uncalled blocking foul on Happ). Davison’s tag and recover prevented the three.
Wisconsin’s drop coverage is designed to contain ball screens until the on-ball defender can recover to his man. It’s a more conservative scheme than others that have been tried against Michigan’s offense, and it’s something that the Badgers run consistently, regardless of opponent.
It does open up a few vulnerabilities in the pick and roll:
— The ball-handler can shoot off the screen for an open off-the-dribble long two (generally a low percentage shot).
— The ball-handler can drive off the screen to build momentum towards the basket and a confrontation with the big.
— The ball-handler can dish a pass to the rolling big, as he’ll be uncovered unless he’s tagged by a perimeter defender.
— The ball-handler can kick it out for a catch-and-shoot three if a perimeter defender tags, putting three defenders on the ball screen pairing.
Of Michigan’s main three ball screen players (Simpson, Poole, and Matthews, who ran 47 of Michigan’s 53 ball screens in this game), Poole is by far the best shooter off the dribble.
Poole was surely prepped to take this shot in practice, and since teams can tag off the shooter in the strong side corner with impunity when Poole’s running the ball screen (since that shooter is often Matthews or Simpson), it’s a shot that he has to be willing to take. In this game, against the “drop” coverage he pulled up off the dribble for five shots: 2-4 on twos, and 0-1 on threes.
Matthews is the ball-handler best equipped to size up the retreating big and try a physical drive to the rim. Because of his size, Simpson has to be more creative, but there are opportunities for him to attack as well — including with his amazing running sky hook. Reuvers is a good rim protector and has one of the best block rates in the Big Ten; his lack of heft may be a liability in the post or on the glass against more beefy bigs, but it isn’t in this context. Michigan’s ball-handlers shot just 2-6 at the rim on pick and rolls and rarely challenged Reuvers.
Wisconsin did very well to prevent these types of looks at the rim, either by tagging off shooters or having the big — usually Reuvers — contain the ball while denying a passing angle to the roller. On this play, Michigan gets Wisconsin’s bench big, Charlie Thomas, in the pick and roll, and Simpson finds Austin Davis for an easy bucket. Reuvers doesn’t commit to tagging hard off of Isaiah Livers on the strong side, perhaps because Livers is a >40% three-point shooter. Michigan only had six points from the screener in the pick and roll all game; two came on this play by Davis, and two came on the next possession when he slipped an identical screen
Michigan basically scrapped its offense and ran spread pick and rolls almost every play with Davis in the game. A few times, he feigned a screen to the sideline and flipped back to the middle, but it was basically the same simple action on most possessions for Michigan.
Davis as Screener
- 13 ball screens
- 4-4 on twos
- 1-4 on threes
- 2 turnovers
- 11 points on 10 possessions
Michigan’s motion offense puts a lot of stress on the fulcrum to make correct reads in a lot of quick, complex sequences, so simplifying it for the backups makes a lot of sense. With Brandon Johns — a freshman learning two positions — it’s almost a necessity, but that Michigan had to do the same for Davis — a third-year player — isn’t a great sign. Teske’s also in his third year and not only can operate in the middle of Michigan’s motion, but can also read the ball screen game and react accordingly with a variety of moves to make himself available.
Occasionally, Wisconsin’s tags would leave shooters wide open for threes. On this play late in the game, Michigan runs a side pick and roll after an offensive rebound scrambled the defense. Simpson sees Happ tag the roll man and makes the right read to kick it to Livers for a three. It’s a great shot for Michigan’s offense, but it doesn’t go in.
Wisconsin’s an elite defensive team — ranked around the top ten in defensive efficiency to Kenpom / Torvik, and second in the Big Ten in points allowed per possession — and they were able to tag and recover very well in this game. The Badgers followed the scouting report, tagging off the worse shooters and staying with the better ones. They had very few busts in their ball screen coverages, and only got beaten with a few off-ball screens. Against defenses like Wisconsin’s, the margins are much slimmer, but opportunities are there.
End with Kick
- 0-1 on twos
- 2-6 on threes
- 6 points on 7 possessions
It’s a make or miss game, so they say. A couple more of those open catch-and-shoot threes go down, and Michigan probably wins. So it goes.