The net may as well be the heads of his enemies. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
On its face, it's an odd decision. After Michigan made only three three-pointers in the first half of the Big Ten championship game, Purdue coach Matt Painter totally altered the way his team played defense. The Wolverines proceeded to run away with the game. Painter bungled the game, right?
A closer look tells a different story. Painter knew that John Beilein was one step ahead of him even though M's shots hadn't fallen early. Presented with a no-win situation, he chose to try to take them out of their normal offense, and to that end he largely succeeded. It didn't matter because Beilein, Moe Wagner, and M's backcourt stayed one step ahead.
The key to Michigan-Purdue games the last two years has been how each team handles the other's big man on defense. In Painter's case, that means finding a way to combat the high ball screen with, at times, five viable three-point shooters spacing the floor. Here's how he tried, and how Beilein countered.
The First Half: Hard Hedges, Layups, and Frustrating Missed Threes
Purdue spent the opening half defending high ball screens much the way Michigan used to: by overplaying the ballhandler. It's a different tactic than the switch-heavy defenses M has seen for the most part since the Nebraska debacle and, in addition to being something a lesser coach may not have expected to see, it better fits Purdue's personnel than switching every screen, especially when Isaac Haas is on the floor.
But Beilein was ready, even if his preparation didn't produce the desired results. For the most part, Michigan fans were treated to this: Wagner (or Duncan Robinson) slipping the screen, getting a wide open look, and missing.
That's not even the most open look Wagner missed, but it's representative.
"You can't allow them to do what they want to do," said Painter in the postgame presser. "And if you do, now it's just hitting or missing, especially when they put skill—[Beilein's] ideal thing is having a five that can shoot. That's why Teske's picking pops, going into the short roll into [the] elbow, Wagner being able to make the threes and drive the ball. He makes them special."
Even as M's shooters struggled to make shots they'd normally put down, the offense kept up an impressive average of 1.23 points per possession. The team didn't turn it over once despite Purdue's high-pressure approach. The scrambling Boilermakers defense opened up the lane for drives once the ballhandler broke pressure. Beilein busted out a 1-4 high screen with Robinson setting the pick and while the primary intention was to free up Robinson beyond the arc, Purdue's overplaying of Simpson also allowed him to attack the basket:
Beilein also made some adjustments. He got Wagner an easy layup by calling for a double ball screen out of a late-half timeout with Charles Matthews as the ballhandler, Isaiah Livers popping to the three-point line, and Wagner rolling to the hoop.
Michigan's ability to space, shoot, and drive makes this play almost impossible to defend given Purdue's approach. They switch the defender on Matthews but he's still able to turn the corner and keep his man behind his hip because of a solid screen by Wagner(!). Matthews' initial defender is forced to stay home on Livers or give up a wide-open three-point attempt. The center has to continue playing Matthews or give up a dunk. The weakside help defender is faced with a choice: rotate hard into the paint in a probably fruitless attempt to stop Wagner or stay home to keep Muhammad-Ali Adbur-Rahkman, a deadly spot-up shooter, from putting three points on the board.
"Our weak side and our guys in ball-screen defense, sometimes when the ball got deep, had to stay home," said Painter. "And you gotta force them to throw the ball out and they didn't do that."
One wraparound pass from Matthews is all it takes for the easiest bucket of Wagner's afternoon. Painter couldn't bank on M's shooters continuing to miss great looks and his team was getting ripped apart in the paint anyway—while they weren't quite as aggressive in their P&R defense against Jon Teske, they needed to alter how they defended him, too.
Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, Beilein also got a halftime.
[After THE JUMP: Painter makes his move and Beilein counters.]
The Second Half: Get Switched And Die Trying
Unleash the guards. [Campredon]
Painter's solution was the same one most of Michigan's opponents tried down this season's final stretch: switching every ball screen. There's good reason Nebraska, the team that destroyed M's offense with this tactic (once, at least), went to this immediately while Purdue broke it out as more of a last resort: Isaac Haas is many things, but a perimeter defender isn't one of them.
In related news, 5'11" guard PJ Thompson isn't much of a post defender. On this play early in the second half, Purdue tries a switch on a Simpson/Wagner high screen. The switch is sloppy; that'll happen when you're changing tactics mid-game. Haas has to respect Z's ability to blow right by him, which gives space for the wraparound pass needed to get another easy bucket at the rim.
By drawing Haas away from the basket and keeping him there, Beilein also opened up second-chance opportunities that don't usually come easy against the Boilermakers.
"In the beginning of the second half, we'd get two or three stops, about three stops in a row, but we couldn't get an offensive rebound," said Painter. "Then when we would go to the matchup, to try to switch and then they had a size advantage down low on a couple of rebounds."
Here's a great example. Michigan has already run a ball screen here to get Haas swiched on Simpson and Thompson on Wagner. Thompson is helpless in the post, so Haas concedes the three-pointer to Simpson. Haas can't abandon Z entirely, however, so Wagner is not only in the best position to tap out the rebound, he does so amongst the Lilliputians. When another chance to go at Haas comes around, Simpson seizes it.
Haas wasn't in foul trouble until Purdue was in full desperation mode but he only played 13 second-half minutes. Beilein and his offense took a player who went 9-for-12 on the other end of the floor and made him relatively unplayable. To do this, Beilein, as Painter mentioned, largely scrapped his usual, inctricate offense in favor of running a quick action to get the desired switch and then attacking.
He didn't ditch the intricate stuff entirely, however, especially off the ball. Wagner's off-ball pick-and-pop at the top of the screen opens up yet another easy layup when backup center Matt Haarms is late coming off the screen and closes out too hard.
Playing the high screen a little more straight-up when Haarms was in the game didn't go so well, either.
Matt Painter is an excellent coach who's assembled a great team this year. Their only significant weakness is the one Beilein managed to exploit; in doing so, Michigan's mastermind took a taut title game and turned it into a blowout.