SPONSOR NOTE. HomeSure Lending is once again sponsoring our NCAA Tournament coverage this year. Matt will be hosting an informal watch party tomorrow night at HOMES Brewery, and buying the first round for any MGoBlog readers who come. If you're looking at buying a house this spring/summer you should talk to him soon.
ICYMI. Part one of the pre-tourney mailbag addressing what consitutes success, the sixth man factor, the possibility of a two-big lineup, and late game free-throw lineups can be found right here.
MAARch Madness, Moe Buckets, or The Z Factor?
Z's huge leap needs to hold. [Campredon]
Given the path and teams in our way, whose level of play is most critical in making a Final Four run between Mo, MAAR, and Z? #mgomailbag
— Juice (@notJustinHanson) March 12, 2018
This is a tough one. The cop-out (but still true!) answer is Michigan will need all three to play at a consistently high level to make a deep run. As Matt Painter will readily tell you, Moe Wagner is the player who makes the team so dangerous by allowing Beilein to run a true five-out offense. The team's late season surge coincided with Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman taking on a bigger role and thriving.
I have to go with Simpson, though. He's the catalyst for this team on both ends of the floor. On offense, he's the guy running the pick-and-roll, and he's being leaned on more than ever as a finisher in addition to a distributor. On defense, he's tasked with shutting down the opponent's best perimeter threat.
Simpson is also the only one of the three who doesn't have a reliable backup. Wagner has Teske, who's a downgrade on offense but an upgrade on defense. MAAR has Poole, who's liable to score double-digit points in a handful of shots at any given moment. Simpson has Jaaron Simmons or Eli Brooks; while Simmons has looked steadier down the stretch, neither has exactly grabbed hold of a role—Simmons didn't score in the BTT and has multiple assists in a game just once since January. Both are huge defensive downgrades from Simpson, too.
The team's defensive renaissance has allowed them to absorb some bad outings from one of their usual go-to guys without taking losses. That could conceivably happen in the tourney with a down game from Wagner or MAAR; I don't see it happening if Simpson doesn't maintain his current run of form. It's not just about what the player brings; it's about what the player behind them brings.
[Hit THE JUMP for more on Z's impact, who gets the defensive credit, the rotation going forward, and more.]
How sustainable is Z’s defense at this point? How do these upcoming PG matchups (HOU, UNC) compare to B1G opponents? #mgomailbag
— Alex (@apapolex) March 13, 2018
This is Z's deal. For all the progress he's made and will make running the offense, he's always going to be a defense-first guy. Beilein said so himself after the conference title game:
We've had some really good point guards, really good point guards over time. All those point guards right there were tremendous offensive players, and they were really good defenders also.
They probably hung their hats on both ends. This guy hangs his hat on defense. And that's a really great thing to have. He's stubborn. He wants to play every minute.
It's hard to imagine this recent run is a fluke given Simpson's mindset and the defensive ability we've seen throughout his two years here:
Michigan can give up some shooting from the one when Simpson inflicts this kind of pain on the point guards of four of the Big Ten's best offenses:
- Jordan Bohannon, Iowa: 11 points on 16 shot equivalents, 3 TOs, 82 ORTG
- Glynn Watson, Nebraska: 10 points on 12 shot equivalents, 2 TOs, 85 ORTG
- Cassius Winston, MSU: 11 points on 12 shot equivalents, 1 TO, 102 ORTG
- Carsen Edwards, Purdue: 12 points on 18 shot equivalents, 2 TO, 77 ORTG
Outside of Watson, those are three of the better offensive guards around, especially Edwards. Simpson not only locked all four players down, he outscored each of them except Edwards, who needed seven additional shot equivalents to score two more points.
The film also indicates Simpson is going to sustain, and even improve upon, his already excellent defense. He has the ideal combination of strength, lateral quickness, and dogged effort. Winston tries to turn the corner here and there's no hope with Z walling up and keeping his feet moving (Winston should, uh, take notes):
Simpson is already playing defense at a level above previous Michigan point guards under Beilein and he's clearly soaking up what the staff is teaching him. My biggest worry about Simpson as a defender after his freshman year was his propensity for picking up cheap fouls. It's hard to rely on a point guard who's committing 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes (as Z did last year) and given his physical style one could question his ability to cut down on them without losing some ground as an on-ball defender.
Instead, Simpson has committed only 2.1 fouls/40 this year while going from a little-used reserve to the team's top defensive option on opposing perimeter scorers. While his steal rate also dropped from his freshman mark, he's still in the national rankings (2.7%, 227th), and suspect that number will rise now that he's learned how to control his aggression—he's suddenly committing so few that he can afford to gamble a little more. I don't just think Z's defense is sustainable through this tourney; I'm expecting it to get even better as he moves into his upperclass years.
(I'm going to ignore potential matchup talk for jinx-related purposes except to say that I like how Simpson matches up against most any lead guard who's not an oversized one-and-done candidate. Houston and UNC both have high-usage PGs in the 6'0"-6'1" range.)
Two More Related Questions From One Emailer
Yak's earned his way into the succession plan conversation. [Campredon]
1. How much of the defensive renaissance would you attribute to Yaklich and how much to the current roster? Seems like a lot of Yaklich, but Simpson/Matthews/Rahkman must be one of the best defensive threesomes Beilein has had.
2. The team defense is already top 10 on the season, but if you just count the last 15 or so games it seems like it's been markedly better than the first half of the season. Do the stats show the defense is currently playing like a top 5 outfit?
It's a little difficult to get a hold on exactly how much credit Luke Yaklich should receive given the defensive turnaround really started last year with Billy Donlon. That said, I'm inclined to give him the lion's share of it. Even maintaining Michigan's defensive gains would've been impressive after they lost DJ Wilson and Zak Irvin, the two best defenders from last year's starting lineup.
Yaklich has done much more; Michigan has sacrificed some foul avoidance to become better in almost literally every other facet of defense. Unlike Donlon, Yaklich managed to introduce a zone defense—multiple looks, even—that works effectively as a change-up. The transition defense went from solid to absurd outlier. He's changed Michigan's pick-and-roll approach to one that both effectively stops the play and keeps the big men from committing cheap fouls. Perhaps most importantly, he has Beilein's complete trust to run that entire side of the ball, and I'm not sure Donlon had fully wrested control from Beilein through much of last season.
There's also evidence from Yaklich's last stop. Illinois State went from 89th in adjusted defense the year prior to his arrival as an assistant to 19th last season. With the same head coach, this year's edition of the Redbirds ranks 135th. There's a lot that points to coaching.
Simpson also gets some of the credit. It makes a difference when a player sets the tone on that end, as Duncan Robinson said after the BTT victory over Nebraska when asked how the defense had become elite:
I think pride, first and foremost. At least in my time here, I feel we've been always criticized for not getting after it at that end. But this team has just completely transformed that mentality.
To be honest with you, I think it starts with Zavier. He brings it every single game and every single day in practice and raises everybody's level.
Having a point guard who can take the opponent's best perimeter player out of the game, disrupt the pick-and-roll, and communicate well with his teammates is difficult to quantify.
Yaklich still has serious personnel limitations, though. His starting frontcourt doesn't have a rim protector, and the bench has one who's still developing in Teske. While Robinson has greatly improved on defense, that coincided with Yaklich scheming up ways to keep him in the post. MAAR and Matthews are solid defenders but I don't think either is exceptional. Given the size and athleticism arriving in the 2018 class and returning from this team, Yaklich can—and I expect he will—take the defense up another notch, which is an insane notion given he currently coaches KenPom's #4 D.
That's a solid segue to question two. There has indeed been a leap in play on that end, one that appears to have come after the loss at Purdue. Through that game, according to Bart Torvik, Michigan ranked 17th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency at 91.0. Since then, they've boasted the country's #4 defense with an adjusted efficiency of 87.9, giving them a healthy gap over #5 Tennessee (89.7). The Wolverines are 11-1 in that span.
I don't think Michigan should be afraid of losing Yaklich after one season like they did Donlon, who had a number of personal reasons to depart for Northwestern last offseason. Yaklich is still only five years removed from coaching high school ball. Unlike Donlon, he doesn't have previous D-I head coaching experience, and he hasn't had the opportunity to show how well he recruits at the high-major level. It'd be a big risk for a program good enough to lure him away from Michigan to give him the head job.
Please don't take that risk, other programs. The thought of Yaklich using a few years' apprenticeship to learn Beilein's offense and make recruiting connections before taking over the program is a very enticing one, even with LaVall Jordan and Patrick Beilein out there as other way-too-early candidates.
Managing The Bench
will Beilein trust his young reserves? [Campredon]
We have seen a lot of great play from the bench (Teske, Robinson/ Livers, Simmons). With that, do you expect Beilein to keep a large rotation of players, or would you expect the lineup to shorten? Or maybe just a game by game evaluation? Thanks.
While there will certainly be adjustments from game to game, I expect Beilein will tighten up the rotation and look to roll with the Simpson-MAAR-Matthews-Robinson-Wagner lineup if he can. Teske still has a major role to play as the backup center; you're always going to get a healthy dose of minutes at that spot, and Teske could prove worth playing extended time against certain opponents. Livers, whose ankle injury was apparently quite minor, should also get a decent amount of run. Jordan Poole, despite his Big Ten Tournament struggles, is still going to get his chance to be instant offense, especially if Matthews struggles; he may be on a tighter leash, though.
I'm not no sure we'll see much of Jaaron Simmons. Beilein was still giving Eli Brooks a chance in the BTT, as well as giving the Poole/MAAR backcourt some longer looks, which isn't a great sign of his trust in Simmons. It may not matter too much anyway. Last year, Beilein rode Derrick Walton hard in the tournament, giving Simpson only 11 minutes across three games. Simpson should get a similar workload; he's consistently handled workloads of well over 30 minutes without showing signs of significant fatigue.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I know in college bball most teams want to try to limit the number of possessions per game, but I think teams should be trying to get 2-for-1s and the end of the half/game. If you start possession with 55 seconds left and a two point lead, you can get a good look with 40 seconds left. If not, drag it out to about 27 seconds and fire one up, but those almost always suck and are missed. If you come up empty and the other team scores to tie or take the lead, you’re guaranteed a chance to have one more possession to score. Why don’t we see this more?
All the best,
Simple: young players not being aware of the clock and coaches making mistakes. As long as a team isn't forcing up an awful shot, they should be taking advantage of any chance to gain an extra possession. NBA guys will sometimes screw this up; college players miss the opportunitiy more often.
Thankfully, I haven't seen this issue much with Michigan. They've done a solid job of recognizing 2-for-1 opportunities.
how does it feel to go 3 for 3 as a Z/Livers/Poole hype man #mgomailbag
— Manuel Excel (@colintj) March 13, 2018