12/18/2010 – Michigan 69, Oakland 51 – 9-2
This doesn't happen so much anymore, but back in the day there was a point in the lifetime of any Windows installation at which the operating system was so loaded with cruft that the only thing to do was take it out back, shoot it in the head, and reinstall. During this process there was always a moment when the computer reminded you in all caps that you were about to shoot it in the head.
The moment when you hit "Y" was always slightly* thrilling. At that time you had to beat your head against extended memory to get Master of Magic to play—there was always a chance your brilliant reinstall plot would end with you banging your head against the case screaming vile things about Bill Gates's parentage. But if things worked out you'd be able to open your word processor without it automatically typing "I hate you and you are stupid."**
Watching this year's basketball team is like sitting in front of a blue screen that asks you if you'd like to format C:. Last offseason John Beilein saw that prompt and hit "Y," and how. This was not entirely voluntary, since DeShawn Sims had run out of eligibility and Manny Harris tolerance for college, but Beilein also lost Anthony Wright and Laval Lucas-Perry to smaller schools in the area—seemingly by his choice, not theirs—and fired his entire coaching staff.
As a result Michigan entered the year without five of the nine players Kenpom had individual stats for last year. Only one—seldom-used freshman Matt Vogrich—used enough possessions to escape the "limited roles" dungeon. Here's what the very bottom of Kenpom's "height and other stuff" shows when you order by average experience:
Anyone who had coached the straggling returners and a couple of redshirt freshmen was out the door as well. An entirely new coaching staff started burning up twitter with exclamation points, installing a man-to-man defense, and trying to get three pointers to fall. The Big Ten was projected to be brutal, with Michigan a speed bump. This was to be a year of banging the head upon the case without even much hope that it would amount to anything.
Eleven games in, Michigan has essentially completed the nonconference schedule. A game against 1-9 Bryant remains and Michigan bizarrely takes on Kansas in early January, but we've gotten all the information we're going to get before Michigan's brutal Welcome To The Big Ten And Kansas stretch (all numbers Kenpom):
- Dec 28: #11 Purdue
- Jan 2: #74 Penn State
- Jan 5: #9 @ Wisconsin
- Jan 9: #2 Kansas
- Jan 12: #3 Ohio State
That still looks like pain, but after three bludgeonings of okay teams and one stirring comeback against Tommy Amaker's Ivy League favorites the chance Michigan swipes one of those uphill battles is something less than infinitesimal. They'll be worth watching, at least. The stretch after that is littered with teams from 15 to 81, with just two forays back into the top ten after, and with Kenpom wavering between 7-11 and 8-10 for the league record both math and your lying eyes suggest this is an NIT team.
So that's weird. Weirder still is how this is being accomplished: with fierce man to man defense. After shutting down Keith Benson Michigan is now 16th in defense, and we're getting to the point where you can't wave away the results as small sample size against poor competition. UMHoops:
Michigan’s defense held Oakland – a team that has already faced West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, and Tennessee – to their worst offensive output of the season. I’ve been hesitant to believe that Michigan’s defense is the real deal, because making bad teams look terrible only goes so far, but right now there’s no denying that Michigan is playing great defense.
On one particular possession on Saturday, Michigan did so well over 35 seconds that the crowd rose to its feet like the hockey team had just killed off a 5-on-3 power play. With the offense still bombing away from 3 (sixteenth nationally) despite not making any of them (253rd), the primary difference between this year and last year is a switch-mad man-to-man that is totally unlike anything Beilein's ever put on the court before.
That, the complete lack of seniors, and the expectation the team's best player returns. We're about to hit the stretch in the format process where the drive makes horrible noises and bad sectors pop up, but the path from here to the point where our word processor loves us again is far clearer than it was two months ago. This, too, is slightly thrilling.
*(very, very slightly)
**(Things like this actually used to happen. They were called macro viruses and I managed to get one back in the day when I shared a spreadsheet with a lab partner. I don't remember exactly what the cryptic message was, but whenever I opened Word it would type a bunch of stuff, delete it, and then type something else that might have been "ferret" but is probably just me misremembering things.)
The All-Seeing Eye. You know it's a good game when the thing that makes you wince in the second half is when the other team goes on a run to cut the lead from 20 to 10 because the all-seeing Eye of Kenpom will disapprove. Fouling and whatnot pushed Michigan's final margin out to 18, and the Great Eye is pleased—Michigan has run itself from triple digits after the UTEP game to 52nd. They've cleared Penn State and Iowa and are in a virtual dead heat with #50 Northwestern, #51 Minnesota, and #54 Indiana for the title of Sixth Best Team In The Big Ten According To Ken Pomeroy.
As far as tourney resumes go, Michigan is clearly behind Minnesota and their wins over UNC and WVU but well ahead of Northwestern (one decent win against GT and that's all) and Indiana (best win over Wright State). If the Big Ten is destined for seven bids, the last one seems up for grabs with Michigan in the conversation. I don't think the BT is going to get seven mostly because none of the three teams after Minnesota has a nonconference win that would cause the committee to sit up and notice, but Michigan could be vaguely on the bubble late this year.
Put this in your pocket. Illinois suffered a demoralizing loss to their version of Oakland, barfing up a 57-54 stinker against Illinois-Chicago. The difference is UIC isn't secretly pretty good—they're 5-7 and have already lost to Akron, Illinois State, Central Michigan, and other less than awesome teams. Here's a reason why:
When UIC took the 1-3-1 zone against us, we looked lost, and since we were unable to shoot ourselves out of it, we were flailing.
Well, then. Michigan plays the Illini only once and that's in the middle of February, so maybe this won't have a huge impact. But if Michigan pulls the 1-3-1 out against Illinois remember this post.
(Side note: Central Michigan is completely awful despite having what must be the most talented player in the MAC. Trey Zeigler and company are 2-8 and just got obliterated by Detroit. This is depressing but from the Zeiglers' perspective the only thing keeping dad around is the presence of his son so the decision makes sense.)
Doubling down. Michigan doubled Benson the instant he got the ball, which was new. They hadn't helped out their center all year even when Harvard's counterpart was tearing Morgan up; in this game they forced turnovers and kickouts from Benson all day. Morgan held up pretty well with the help.
Infectious coaching. Beilein must have gotten a tiny thrill after Jon Horford gave up an and-one to Benson in the first half when both Zack Novak and Darius Morris went over to him to demonstrate what he did wrong on the play. Novak even provided helpful "arms straight up" versus "whatever you were doing, freshman" pantomimes.
I know how you feel. The UMHoops game preview said "expect a lot more zone" and I thought "that's a really good thing to put in the preview because it's probably going to be true" and then the only zone we saw was a single possession of 1-3-1 at the end of the first half.
How Darius Morris makes the defense go. Thanks to their huge point guard, Michigan's perimeter rotation of Morris, Novak, Douglass, Hardaway, and Vogrich is all about the same size, which allows them to switch relentlessly on all screens, which goes a long way towards making up for a lack of quickness from the pastier guys in the rotation, which means teams get few opportunities to drive the lane because there's always a dude right in front of them.
Michigan's defense is now Wisconsin's: built on never fouling you, never blocking your shots, never stealing the ball, but forcing you into a wide array of not-very-good shots. Michigan is 10th in three point D, 57th in two point D, 11th in FTA/FGA, 14th in eFG%, and well down the list when it comes to forcing turnovers and getting blocks. Instead of leaving their feet they get in spots to take charges and get their hands in the air.
It's the exact opposite of the 1-3-1, which might make the 1-3-1 pretty effective if they 1) figure out how to use it, and 2) deploy it as a change up.
UMHoops game recap. Beilein on guarding Benson. The Wolverine Blog talks about the defense. Morgan fluff from the News. Five Key Plays from UMHoops features this assist, which wasn't key but it was awesome:
There is a shaky but extant torrent.