Pre-Tourney Mailbag, Part One: Judging Success, Sixth Man Effect, Two Bigs, Closers Comment Count

Ace March 13th, 2018 at 11:47 AM

Yes, it's another multi-part pre-tournament mailbag, as y'all continue to ask a lot of good questions. While I've mostly got part two finished, I'm still open to adding another question or two. If you'd like to do that, email me or tag your question with #mgomailbag on Twitter.

What Is Success?

success: achieved. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]

No matter what transpires the rest of this month, this season has been a rousing success. This was supposed to be a transition year between the experienced 2016-17 squad and the set-to-be-crazy-talented 2018-19 team. John Beilein's most successful teams need a star point guard or Stauskas-like point-wing to run the offense; the players we expected to fill those spots were a MAC grad transfer and a (have you heard this before?) Kentucky transfer with an iffy shot. I figured it'd take a decent bit of Beilein coaching magic—baked into my preseason expectations at this point—to get this team somewhere in the five-seed to eight-seed range in the tourney.

While the season was on that track for a while, it's all come together late for the second straight year—Michigan has a three-seed and will hang at least one more banner in Crisler. We've seen talent development from Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, and Jon Teske that's taken the expectations for next year to even greater heights. Luke Yaklich not only held up Billy Donlon's miraculous defensive turnaround; he built on it to the point Michigan boasts a top-five defense despite fielding a frontcourt with some very limited players on that end.

It'd be quite nice to avoid a massive upset against Montana; anything beyond that, even though M will be favored, is playing with house money. I will admit some greed, however, and mention that any loss will still hurt for two main reasons:

  1. John Beilein is 65 and it's difficult to predict how coaches will age. While I'm not seeing any signs of a decline—if anything, quite the opposite—there are only so many years left, and even when trying to set aside bias I can't think of a college coach more deserving of a national title.

Fandom insanity aside, though, this season has already surpassed any reasonable preseason expectations, and the next one should be even better—so long as this team doesn't pull a 2014 Ohio State Football and beat the hotly anticipated future squad to the punch.

[Hit THE JUMP for much, much more.]

As The Four Turns 

despite shifting roles, M is getting good production from the four. [Campredon]

The twists of a college basketball season are funny when DRob can be the focus of our scorn one month, demanding he be benched and tied at the hip to Teske so Livers can play and then being a hero a month later.  While there are a lot of factors at play with his recent success, can you point to some aspect of changing roles with Livers that affects this?  I find it interesting that Livers was hot and deserving of a promotion, and yet now he starts but is clearly playing minimal minutes relative to Robinson and has not had a big game since they switched spots.

Chicago, IL

While bringing Duncan Robinson off the bench has its benefits, I believe this is more a matter of this team figuring out its best approach over the course of a season than who's in the starting lineup.

Once the coaches devised a way for Robinson to be playable on defense, it was only a matter of him rediscovering his shot before he was going to take most of Livers' minutes—having a shooter who draws off-ball defenders like Robinson is so valuable in this offense. He's also much less prone to mistakes, particularly turnovers, than his freshman counterpart. Coming off the bench helps a bit—Beilein can still pick his matchups a bit—but Robinson is playing so many minutes that I think that angle is overblown.

Livers remains a promising talent and he's a decent rotation piece already; he's also hit the proverbial freshman wall. His usage, rebounding rates, assist rate, and turnover rate have all gone in the wrong direction since he stepped into the starting lineup. He hasn't been bad—his most important contributions mostly occur without the ball—but he's currently behind Robinson on both ends. There's nothing wrong with that; Livers is still on track to be a good player but the senior captain is outplaying him.

It's. Not. Happening.

pictured: Teske and Wagner playing effectively together.

I expect Beilein and Co. to break out some new wrinkles after all the time off to prepare. This won't be one of them.

Playing Teske and Wagner together negates the precise advantage Michigan holds over teams like Purdue: they put paint-bound centers in a bind on defense with their five-out approach and it's hard for opponents to keep pace by running offense through the post. Playing both bigs together would mess with the team's spacing and ask Wagner to operate at a position he's barely played at Michigan—this isn't like asking someone to shift between spots on the wing, as the actions the center runs are different from anyone else in Beilein's offense. And those are just the offensive issues; asking the slow-footed Wagner to potentially defend wings is a recipe for trouble on the other end.

The limited data we have suggests these problems are quite real. Per Hoop Lens, Wagner and Teske shared the court for 22 offensive possessions and 24 defensive possessions this season spread across four Big Ten games, none since a February 11th win at the Kohl Center that gave Beilein a lot of time to experiment. In the admittedly tiny sample, those lineups were bad: 1.05 points per possession and 40.0% two-point shooting on offense versus 1.38 PPP allowed with an 85.7(!) 2P% against on defense. That's with the majority of their possessions coming against Northwestern, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—not close to tourney-caliber teams.

If Wagner were (not) hitting the boards like last year, maybe this would be something to break out against an overwhemling offensive rebounding team. Wagner's been excellent on the glass, however, and so has the team in general.

Michigan would have to burn serious, precious practice time on a lineup that has a good chance of falling flat on its face. It's one that goes against Beilein's offensive philosophy and doesn't help the defense. I don't know why people keep pining for it. I'd be floored to see it in anything but a blowout, and perhaps even then.

The Closers

preferable to most alternatives. [Campredon]

I don't like this question (no offense, Neel) because there isn't a good answer here.

Since changing his free throw routine before the second Ohio State game, Zavier Simpson has gone 19-for-32 (59.4%) at the line. Prior to that, he'd shot only 46.9%. That's an improvement and there's reason to believe it can hold; the new routine has largely fixed his biggest mechanical issue, which is letting his shooting elbow flail out to the side instead of keeping it aligned with his shoulder. It's still not exactly an inspiring mark from the charity stripe, especially with his 1-for-5 performance against Purdue the freshest thing in our minds.

I still might go with Simpson, though. Charles Matthews has also seen incremental improvement but his season mark is only 55.1% and there haven't been significant changes to his routine that caused an inflection point like Simpson's. Isaiah Livers has attempted only ten free throws all year. Jaaron Simmons is 8-for-13 this season and would almost certainly be coming in cold.

It's not an ideal choice, but I'd go with Simpson. Given the available options, I'd want the superior ballhandler and defender on the court, and doing little things like using him as an inbounder (if he can run the baseline) can hopefully keep him from going to the line in a do-or-die situation.


Stringer Bell

March 13th, 2018 at 11:54 AM ^

I think this team needs to at least make it to the Sweet 16.  Houston is good but we should beat them.  Although I will admit that I would be disappointed with a loss to UNC, considering how well we're playing it really seems like this team should make it all the way to San Antonio but UNC is a tough matchup.

However, I disagree that this is a transition year.  Next year we'll be more talented, sure, but we're likely losing our 2 best players from this team in MAAR and Wagner.  While it's reasonable to expect that the incoming freshmen/improvement from the current young guys will keep this team playing at a high level, it's going to be very difficult to replace those 2 players (especially Wagner, who's such a unique player at the 5 spot), not to mention DR as well.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:11 PM ^

reason that I viewed it as more of a "rebuilding" type of year is because I thought we would be fatally weak at the PG position.  I knew that Simpson was at least passable, probably long term as a backup, and that he was a good defender.  I had no idea that he would be this much an impact player this season.  I also didn't foresee both Poole and Livers being pretty close to "ready to go" freshman right away. 

Regarding this tournament, I'm not sold that Houston is getting out of the first round.  I know that KenPom has them as the best 6 seed, but after watching them this weekend I was not impressed.  At all.  Their offense, to the extent that one could be deciphered, was to score in transition or throw the ball around the perimeter until Grey jacked up an off the dribble three pointer.  Their defense was pretty good but Cincinatt's offense is awful.  I don't know a ton about New Mexico St., but I think they are pretty solid and what I saw of Houston did not impress me. 

And I agree.  This Michigan team should not lose before the Sweet 16.  To me, it will be a notable upset if they go out before that.  But the UNC game is going to come down to a bounce of the ball here or there.  If that is in fact the matchup, it will be quite a bit different than last year to me.  I thought Michigan was clearly a better team than Oregon and had to play a very poor game to lose (which they did!).  Carolina is the type of opponent that Michigan could play really well against and lose anyway.


March 13th, 2018 at 1:07 PM ^

over the last few months.  Personally I saw him taking a lot of bad drives and shots towards the end of the shot clock in the January time frame.  I started to get frustrated when I'd see him with the ball late. The last few months have completely changed my mind.  He is a constant force and best option late in the shot clock to drive or shoot.  

It's really amazing to see how many players have turned a corner over the season. Robinson, Simpson, MAAR, Teske.  I also think Mathews looked great in the BTT.  His passing looked phenominal, and his outside shot looks to be much improved. 

I am really excited to see what the team does in the tournament.  If you had told me at the beginning of the season I could lock up a S16, I'd have taken it.  Now, I'm thinking a FF is a reasonable expectation. 


March 13th, 2018 at 12:07 PM ^

What do you mean by needs to make it to the Sweet 16?


Michigan has a 52% chance to make it to the Sweeet Sixteen according to Bart Torvik. I assume a similar number on KenPom and other metircs. That's like counting on a Zavier Simpson FT. The season is a success and the randomness of a single elimination tournament will not change it.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:15 PM ^

46.8%, per KenPom -- Michigan is only a 76.5% favorite to beat Montana, per his system.

Part of the reason that the tournament is so much fun is that the best teams don't always advance.  If the first round were even best-of-3, it would be a much less compelling event.

This season should be judged as a whole.  Tied for fourth in the Big Ten was disappointing; winning the Big Ten Tournament pretty much makes up for it.  I'll be disappointed with any loss, but that doesn't change the perception of the season.  It's a success -- they outperformed any reasonable preseason expectations.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:40 PM ^

Folks predicting that at the start of the season were part of the wildly optimistic segment of the fan base. Winning 28 games (2-0 vs MSU) and hanging a banner while avoiding FBI scrutiny and $40 jokes is a major success in my book.

The Man Down T…

March 13th, 2018 at 1:00 PM ^

They crushed expectations and that's great. 

However, what puts the cherry on top of the season are the vast improvements from Simpson and Teske and the play of Poole and Livers.  Having them this good now means that they are going into next year ready to shepherd the team while the incoming talent steps up and gets into college/Big Ten form.  That's a HUGE win for the season.  It could very well save some games early on.  


March 13th, 2018 at 1:11 PM ^

to add to your list, they beat every team in the B10 at least once this season.

Also on the unexpected, best defense they have ever had in Beilein era by huge margin. You tell me that at beginning of season with Robinson and Wagner as high percentage players (both more offensive minded) and I call bullshit maize glasses.


March 13th, 2018 at 1:54 PM ^

Michigan has the money to compete with low tier Head coaching jobs for a little bit and he only has 1 year as an assistant at a big time program.  Perfect scenario is he is here for a few years, leaves for a head coaching gig, only to be one of the top candidates to replace Beilein. 


March 13th, 2018 at 1:22 PM ^

Actually, I think most people pre-season thought that Michigan was in a tier of teams just below Michigan State, with Minnesota and Purdue.  Some people put them fifth, I guess, below MSU, Minnesota / Purdue / Northwestern, and then Michigan / other teams.

But it was a little disappointing in absolute terms -- not necessarily relative to expectations -- because Michigan didn't do better than (tied for) fourth in what is clearly a down year for the Big Ten.  Wisconsin had 15 straight years of Top 4 finishes or whatever; Michigan should be able to do the same.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:21 PM ^

think that is going a little bit far.  This is when teams play for Final Fours and National Championships.  If we want Michigan to become an elite basketball schools, as fans, I don't think we can exclusively rely on other metrics or inferior accomplishments to measure them by.   We may not have the talent as blueblood outfits like Duke or NC, but Beilein is not doing this with leftovers and spare parts.  Simpson, Poole, and Livers were all highly rated recruits.  Mattthews was a 5 star recruit.  Wagner is going to be a pro.  Of course this season has already been a success, but I would really like to see this program get to "the next level."

I get it, as fans, we don't really have the right to be throwing around any mandates, especially when this team has had two really memorable runs in the BTT the last two years.  But why not us, right?


March 13th, 2018 at 2:05 PM ^

Your answer KT -

It was boring!

This is not the day or time of year to discount results of "a single elimination tournament"!

This type of rationale may lead some to say the results of the B1G reg season mean more than the conference tournament.

Cannot be having THAT!!!

(And the OP clearly stated Z is shooting 59% FT since he changed his routine, so apparently Torvik thinks M's chances to win 2 games are worse than Z's FT %!)

I disagree with that very strongly.

Blue In NC

March 13th, 2018 at 12:08 PM ^

Agreed in general.  A month or so ago, losing DRob looked like "no big loss" but now losing his shooting touch and spacing will definitely hurt.  Also, we are losing MAAR who has become a very important piece and Wagner (assuming Wagner goes), a more complete player than earlier in the season.  Yes, we have replacements but not someone that's going to be just as good.  Of course, we do get a solid injection of talent and more importantly, expected improvement from Livers and Poole.  But I agree that we can't just assume significant improvement - at least how the team is playing now.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:49 PM ^

Sophomore leaps from Poole and Livers, and possibly Brooks. Teske is only going to get better. And then there is a good chance that at least 1 or 2 freshmen contribute valuable minutes.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:13 PM ^

I agree with the Sweet 16 take. I won’t be disappointed in the season if we don’t make the second weekend, but it will feel like a “what if” moment.

What if the conference tourney wasn’t early this year? What if we had a week to prepare for UNC? What if we got to play a Xavier team in the EE that KenPom favors us against?

I’m hoping they can take care of business this weekend, and then leave it all on the floor in LA. This team is too good and deserving to go down on a fluke before then.

Nate the Newt

March 13th, 2018 at 12:29 PM ^

We said this last year with the loss of Irvin and Walton.  This year we scuffled and then figured it out.  I'd imagine the same thing happening next year.  The difference is the overall talent level is higher.  That's why I'd set my expectations higher.  I do agree with the Wagner-shooting-5 man being a step back.  Teske will have to be able to be a slight threat here.


March 13th, 2018 at 1:18 PM ^

maybe just not as much as Wagner.  I think he runs the pick and roll more similar to Jordan Morgan though, in slipping away to move to the hoop.  He may not be as productive on the offensive side as Wagner, but if he used like Morgan, he can still be a critical offensive piece to all the shooters surrounding him. I think he's a better shooter than Morgan too. 

It's hard to find players like Wagner and Wilson who can play the 5 and step out and shoot three's.  Part of the reason they are special. 


March 13th, 2018 at 12:52 PM ^

Do you really disagree with Ace? Neither of you think this is a transition year now, but Ace thought before the season that it would be. Did you have UM being a top-4 seed, winning 13ish B1G games and winning the BTT? Most did not due to the transition from DWalt's team. Even if one thought MAAR and Mo would be our two best players their leaps have been impressive, and the rest of the team especially Z have been at least as impressive.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:19 PM ^

Last year's B1G tournament was a special event and I wanted that win in the worst way, as much as any first-weekend NCAA tournament result. 

That's a rarity, though. This season has already exceeded expectations, but a first-or-second round exit would put a real damper on things. 

The key to me is that, like last year, a Sweet 16 exit (assuming UNC is the opponent) would be disappointing but not devastating. Contrast with 2013, which was a season with loads of talent and promise and for a time looked like a pretty pitiful 16 exit before Trey Burke changed everything with one stroke of his hand. That season NEEDED to advance in the tournament to fulfill its promise; this season has already fulfilled everything it could.

But advancing would be awfully nice. The tournament, after all, is pretty much everything. The difference between "nice transitional team" and "one of the great Michigan sports teams of all time" is the difference between playing two games and six in the next three weeks.


March 13th, 2018 at 1:42 PM ^

1st or 2nd round would be disappointing because this team looks like it has learned to hold leads, how to close out a game. For a while there they could falter toward the end. Yes, it has happened later in the season, but not so much and usually ref-induced (e.g., Iowa in the BTT).

So I really don't expect this group to falter in the face of the opponent suddenly getting hot, making contested threes to hang around, or something like that -- the kind of thing that leads to early tourney upsets. This team has proven, at least in my mind, that they can weather that and still win.

Ergo, it will hurt, precisely because I don't expect it. It's all gravy after that, and if I were a Tarheel I'd be worried about facing this team again, especially if I knew any Purdue fans.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:23 PM ^

I'm already happy we pasted MSU twice and have a 3 game win streak over Izzo.

That said, I would be slightly disappointed to see Wagner leave without a F4 appearance.

General sentiment is that he's gone after this year, but I still think there is a slight chance he returns if Michigan loses to UNC. Michigan would be a top 10 lock with a very strong backcourt to compliment Wagner's skillset. It would be an opportunity at a title and increased draft stock, plus you can tell he's having a blast with the college experience.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:35 PM ^

I don't think it's any more than 60/40 that he's gone, but we'll just have to wait and see...many recent mocks have him as a second rounder, but he's played really well of late and there will be a lot of professional eyeballs on him in the next couple weeks.


March 13th, 2018 at 3:57 PM ^

Even if he is MVP of the tournament I dont see him being a 1st round pick. He will never be able to defend NBA 4s and nothing will ever change that. He could be a nice bench guy in the NBA though with his ability to stretch the floor. If I were in is position I think Id delay going pro for another chance at college glory. When you get old thats what you will remember most fondly regardless of professional glory.


March 13th, 2018 at 12:28 PM ^

I thought about this before the BTT, I think these two scenarios would've left me about equivalently satisfied at the end of the season.

1) Win the BTT, lose 1st rd of NCAA

2) Lose 1st rd of BTT, lose in the Elite 8

Scenario #1 is now the worst case scenario, so going based on my expectations before the BTT, I'm satisfied. There would be temporary disappointment after losing obviously, but shit happens in basketball. As Ace said, now we're playing with house money,


March 13th, 2018 at 12:44 PM ^

It's a banner season, which by definition is pretty good - we can look back on this season fondly no matter what happens.  But if we go out in the first weekend there will be a bad aftertaste, as in 2012.  I still have good memories of winning the Big Ten that year (ending the long drought) but that Ohio game is a sore spot, even if it paid off down the road with LeVert.  

Reaching the Sweet 16 would make for a satisfying year for sure.  At that point, it's just a matter of whether it's a very good year or a great one.  Two more wins beyond that and this becomes a great season.



March 13th, 2018 at 8:43 PM ^

Having seen the '85 and '86 Big Ten Champion teams go out in the first weekend of the NCAAs   . . . I can tell you, it's a disappointment.  Banner or not.

Those were some great teams.  Gary Grant was the best on ball defender I think I ever saw.

So even now when I look back on those teams, there is a twinge of disappointment.  For what could have been.  It all ended too soon, and you never get it back.


Perkis-Size Me

March 13th, 2018 at 12:50 PM ^

Hard to disagree with Ace's sentiment. While an upset against Montana would suck, even if it did happen its hard to be upset with how this season has played out. A second straight BTT banner to hang in the rafters, sweeping Izzo's alleged greatest team ever, both times by double digits, being the only team to beat everyone else in the conference at least once, and Beilein will more than likely be sending another one of his players into the first round of the draft. 

This season is already a success in my eyes. If we make it to the second week of the tournament, we're absolutely playing with house money at that point.