SPONSOR NOTE. HomeSure Lending is once again sponsoring our NCAA Tournament coverage this year, and once again that is going rather well. I'm not saying Michigan's second straight run to the second weekend of the tournament is due to this great partnership of sports blog and home-financing expert; I'm not saying it isn't, either. I certainly don't want to test this theory. If you're looking at buying a house this spring/summer you should talk to him soon.
I started digging into this first question and, once we wrapped up the roundtable, realized I wanted to dedicate the entire post to it. Before we hit the Sweet Sixteen game, let's take a look at some of the ways John Beilein's offense confounds defenses.
Reads on Reads on Reads
There's a lot happening up there. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
This question is inspired by the “Indiana” Play. In football posts, specific plays are often referenced and then how various counters are deployed to react to a team biting on the base play. Do you have an example of a common play M runs and some examples of counters we run off of it?
It's important to begin this by differentiating between football and basketball offenses, especially since many Michigan fans are much more familiar with the inner workings of the former. Football offenses are more rigid; every play needs to be a set play (obviously) and the execution of the play happens within a few seconds, so even plays with options/reads are limited to quick on-the-fly reads.
Basketball has a lot more improvisation, even within the more regimented offenses. There are 30 seconds to get a good shot. Part of what makes Beilein's offense so difficult to pick up is that Michigan's "plays" involve constant reads based on how the defense reaction to the initial action. Add in that a player could break the play off entirely if there's a defensive breakdown and it's often tough to pin down what they ran—the same offensive set can produce very different-looking actions and results depending on a cascading series of decisions made through the course of the possession.
For example, here's a nine-minute long video showing the various things Beilein's offense does to set up, run, and play off of one action, a pindown screen on the wide side of the court:
You can watch the whole thing; you can also get the general idea within a few clips. Depending upon how the defense plays the screen, the player running off the ball can pop out for a long jumper, curl off the pick for a midrange shot or drive, or turn down the screen and cut to the basket—and that's just the initial part of a play that has a half-dozen other options to come if the defense manages to account for all of those.
Those aren't different set plays; it's Michigan's players internalizing the offense to the point they can all make those reads as a team. That Beilein develops his players so they can not only execute his offense but do so while being one of the most turnover-averse teams in the country is nothing short of remarkable.
[Hit THE JUMP for some more examples.]
The Unstoppable Set
A lead guard who can read the defense is a must. [Campredon]
My favorite Beilein set that works beautifully for the original question is one I've featured on this site before. Unfortunately, it was during December of last season, so I don't exactly blame you if you didn't see it the first time around. This also means I don't feel bad about copy-and-pasting my own work:
This set requires its own section because Michigan ran it twice in a row, getting two layups as VT reacted to the success of the first play and in doing so opened up another way to get a bucket from the same set. I've diagrammed the first basket in two parts [click to embiggen].
MAAR starts with the ball and gives it off to Walton, then heads below the free-throw line. Walton swings it to Duncan Robinson, who's arcing to the wing. Walton runs to the corner as Robinson passes it to Wagner, who's popped outside the three-point line. This is where it gets fun.
Wagner pivots to face the near side, causing his defender to take a step in that direction. As he does this, Robinson cuts across the court, which accomplishes two things: he effectively sets a screen for Wagner, and as he continues across he clears out enough space that his man can't help on a Wagner drive. Wagner pivots back to face the far side and performs a give-and-go with Walton while MAAR picks off Wagner's man. MAAR's defender is in a tough spot. He doesn't react to the screen and impede Wagner, allowing another open layup.
That is gorgeous.
Beilein dialed up the same set on Michigan's next trip down the floor. This one plays out slightly different and still manages to get a layup. Robinson's cut across the floor is shallower and doesn't impact Wagner's defender as Wagner pivots and gives the ball to Walton. MAAR's defender recognizes the pick this time and helps cut off the potential give-and-go, so MAAR pops out to the top of the key—nobody contests the pass from Walton to MAAR because all the focus is on Wagner's cut.
A better three-point marksman would probably just shoot this; there's enough space to pull without much of a shot contest if MAAR goes right up with it. Even without the shot, this action allows Michigan to reset quickly, and you can see that Beilein has designed this play so there's still ideal spacing to set up the next action from this set, a downhill handoff to Zak Irvin.
MAAR starts to drive left into the heart of the defense, causing a chain reaction. Irvin's defender has to help cut off the drive, but as he's diverting his attention to MAAR, Irvin cuts over the top of MAAR and gets running handoff. The effect is akin to a reverse in football; the defense is all moving one way as Irvin is going the other with a lot of momentum. MAAR's man tries to switch onto Irvin, but with the laws of physics being what they are, he can't prevent Irvin from getting to the rim for a layup—one that's barely contested because Wagner moved to the other side of the paint, taking the rim protector away from the side Michigan wanted to attack.
This is a small part of why Beilein is rightfully regarded as an offensive genius. There are, without a doubt, more wrinkles and counters built into this set; we just happened to see two of them on consecutive plays. If Michigan runs the set correctly, it's remarkably difficult for a defense to shut down all the available options.
It's also a big part of why any "Fire Beilein" talk is still completely, utterly insane. Michigan is only 154th in three-point percentage while attempting the 21st-highest rate of threes in the country. You'd think that would spell doom for a Beilein offense, yet they have the nation's 19th-best adjusted efficiency. They don't have a great shot creator or a dominant post presence. I don't expect Michigan's outside shooting stuggles to continue; once those start falling, M's offense is going to rank among the elite once again.
Oh, weird, how'd that last part stay in? Guess I'll just leave it.
More Evil Sets
I've been secretly building a collection of Beilein's most diabolical sets on the gfycat page—while unfortunately my library there isn't searchable by keyword, a site-wide search for Beilein brings up some gorgeous offense (also some ref reactions).
This play is quick and evil, so I'll take you through one more:
Michigan is getting into their offense. Wagner sets an off-ball screen for Matthews, who's at the top of the key, for a potential lob—it's actually there, as Wagner sets a great screen(!), but MAAR doesn't want to risk the pass. An opportunity for two easy points missed, but there's more.
Wagner immediately heads over like he's going to run a high screen with MAAR, but instead receives a handoff before MAAR heads for to set a pick for Eli Brooks in the corner. Brooks, I'm guessing, has the option to take the screen, but he sees the defense overplaying it and makes a hard baseline cut instead—if the defense doesn't recover he has a layup. Both defenders go with him. MAAR pops to three-point line, gets a short pass from Wagner, and drills an uncontested three.
For those who love to get on Michigan's occasional issues inbounding the ball, here's a killer baseline out-of-bounds set Beilein ran in the same game, using the inbounder (MAAR) as a sneaky off-ball screener to get Wagner a layup.
Bottom line: if you see Wagner pivot at the three-point line, expect something good to happen, and if you really want to learn about basketball this evening, get your eye off the ball and watch how Michigan moves around it.