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]
How far would Michigan need to advance in the NCAA tournament for you to consider this season a success? Or, do you already consider this season a success? Just interested in your opinion! #mgomailbag
— Dave McMahan (@davymac97) March 12, 2018
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:
- 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.
- HOO DANG WOULD IT BE NICE FOR THAT TO HAPPEN IN THE YEAR LOUISVILE VACATED THE BEILEIN/BURKE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP AND FIRED RICK PITINO.
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.
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.
Could we play both Teske and Wagner if we were to face a very good low post scoring center like Haas, but plays more than 22 minutes #mgomailbag
— Plug (@ConnollyJacob13) March 12, 2018
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.
preferable to most alternatives. [Campredon]
Late game lineup for FT shooting: MAAR, DRob, Wagner, and Poole are no-brainers. Who would be your 5th? #mgomailbag
— Neel (@beigegalaga) March 12, 2018
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.