UCLA Postmortem: Bad Defense, Good Offense, or Both?

Submitted by Ace on December 12th, 2016 at 4:04 PM

MAAR probably gets a pass for not contesting this one.

I regret responding to this with "that's easy enough":

I went back through the UCLA game and charted each three-point attempt by both teams save for the last couple minutes of garbage time. The no-late-heavy shot contest system is relatively self-explanatory and looks at how well the defender guarded the shot attempt. Heavy contest shots, especially from beyond the arc, are bad ideas; late contest is enough of an opening to get a good look but isn't completely wide open; no contest is wide the hell open.

When breaking it down by halves, the story of the game emerges:

  No Contest Late Contest Heavy Contest
Michigan (1st Half) 3/4 7/10 2/2
Michigan (2nd Half) 0/1 2/6 0/1
UCLA (1st Half) 5/6 5/6 0/2
UCLA (2nd Half) 3/3 3/4 0/2

I expected a bit more NBA Jam (i.e. drilling heavily contested shots) in UCLA's first-half results; instead, I saw a series of errors that led to good looks, and those errors got way worse in the second half. Meanwhile, Michigan's offense stopped generating easy looks beyond the arc in the second half at the same time they cooled off on tougher shots.

[Hit THE JUMP for blood, oh god, so much blood.]

First Half Issues: Hand Down, Man Down

Two of Lonzo Ball's first-half threes are tough to blame on the defense; both were well-timed shots from way beyond the arc. The second ended the half; you remember that bomb. The first came so early in the shot clock that Derrick Walton's late contest is about as good as you can reasonably expect—while Ball has a healthy amount of room, Walton at least gets his hand into Ball's line of vision:

Michigan had opportunities to better contest other first-half attempts only to be done in by poor technique. When guarding shooters the caliber of UCLA's, you can't play on-ball defense with your hands down on the perimeter. Time and again, UCLA players got their shots off because M defenders were late getting their hands up:

Robinson backed off, then got his hand up well after Alford had risen for the shot. Note how Alford still has a completely clean line of sight to the rim.

This one wasn't as bad. MAAR was a step behind getting around an off-ball screen and Ball got this shot off in an instant. Again, a clean line of sight.

Here it is in motion: Zak Irvin does a good job navigating a series of switches then lets it go to waste because his hands are at his knees:

There were plenty of occasions when Michigan wasn't in position to even contest, and there wasn't a lone culprit. Ball's first triple came off an offensive rebound when Walton wandered into the paint without actually going up for the board and left UCLA's best player wide open. Xavier Simpson blew a switch for a TJ Leaf no-contest three. Mark Donnal gave unnecessary help on a drive that left Leaf wide open for another. Irvin nearly fell to the court trying to get around an off-ball screen and couldn't recover on Aaron Holiday.

The most galling first-half NC came off a Michigan made basket; Ball pushed the tempo off the inbounds and even though DJ Wilson did a good job of preventing a good look at the rim, the rest of the defense collapsed, allowing a wide open kickout:

UCLA's offense will create these looks on occasion even against the very good defenses; Michigan didn't play very good defense. At least, in the first half, most of their issues could be chalked up to lapses in technique and the occasional blown switch. It got worse in the second half.

Second Half Issues: WTF

Michigan started off well, harrassing UCLA into heavily contested misses on their first two three-point attempts—Irvin and MAAR both had excellent closeouts. Then it all came apart. Holiday hit a good look on a simple handoff because Duncan Robinson sunk back two steps towards the paint on a switch for no discernible reason. The next Bruin triple was also on Robinson, who took a swipe at the ball as Holiday drove to the basket and then just stopped playing defense on his man, Isaac Hamilton:

That's a major mental lapse. There's no need for Robinson to help on the drive but trying for the steal is fine as long as he recovers onto his man; instead, he seems to forget that his man exists.

The next two attempts—and makes—came off bad switches and defensive communication. First, Simpson made a freshman mistake, "helping" from no-man's land on a drive Wilson had already cut off and completely losing his man as a result:

Holiday would cut to the corner and Robinson, put in a really tough spot, couldn't rotate over in time to get a great contest.

On the second, MAAR decided to switch without communicating that point to Irvin. This is not ideal:

MAAR's man, Alford, is all alone at the top of the key. That's probably his easiest non-transition look of the year.

The final UCLA three before garbage time came when Michigan desperately pulled out the 1-3-1, a defense that gives up a lot of good outside looks if you can get it moving around; UCLA got it moving around.


This wasn't NBA Jam. UCLA made a couple unlikely shots but for the most part their shots came off Michigan defensive breakdowns. It takes a great shooting team to go 15-for-24 even against a defense that gives them this many openings, but UCLA is a great shooting team, and nothing Michigan did took them out of their comfort zone.

Get your hands up. Michigan would've been in great position to force a couple more misses if their defenders simply put their hands up. That's a Defense 101 issue that gave the Wolverines serious trouble, especially in the first half.

Simpson is looking like an overwhelmed freshman. More on X in a full Basketbullets post tomorrow but this was a rough outing for him outside of his steal. He plays defense like it's high school and he can recover onto his man no matter what; against college programs that'll identify the open man in an instant, he can't play that way.

Communication on rotations and switches is lacking. Some of this may stem from the center position—one reason it took so long for Beilein to get even semi-comfortable with Wagner at center was his lapses in communication on defense, and we saw UCLA get a wide open dunk early in the second half on one such lapse. Communication between the perimeter players is also an issue. On too many occasions, two Wolverines ended up on the same guy while a shooter was left all alone.

This game exposed serious flaws. I'll have even more tomorrow. While Michigan may not face another offense the caliber of UCLA's all year, they showed flaws that lesser offenses can exploit. This will either be a (rough) learning experience for an improving defense or the point when Michigan got exposed as still a below-average defensive team.



December 12th, 2016 at 4:18 PM ^

My sense was that Michigan was overly excited and swept up into thinking, "You want to have a three-point shooting contest? Okay, let's do it!" 

I really don't enjoy knocking the seniors, whom I like, but their inability to focus the team is disheartening. 


December 12th, 2016 at 4:39 PM ^

I'm pretty afraid of Indiana and MSU (maybe Wisky?) running that same iso-weave that UCLA ran to get mismatches. Not many teams have 7 players at the 1-4 spots that can create the number of mismatches that UCLA could, but that's still such an easy motion to run and Michigan had no answer for it (cant stay in front of their man + no shot blocker in the paint).

Bright side: we ran a lot of good offense, both transition and half-court. We may have even gotten some better paint looks in the second half, just missed them/got swatted (a couple of DJ and Zak misses come to mind).


December 12th, 2016 at 4:49 PM ^

102 points isn't out of the norm for UCLA this year.  Trying to find out what UM might have been able to do better is going to be like banging your head against a wall.  In their 10 games UCLA has scored:

119, 102, 88, 114, 99, 82, 74, 98, 97, 102.



December 12th, 2016 at 5:06 PM ^

The Michigan game was UCLA's slowest of the season by five full possessions (64; they average 75). UCLA scored a season high 1.59 points per possession on Saturday night. Their next-best output this season was 1.49 PPP against Pacific, which has the #171 defense in the country.

There's no way to sugercoat this defensive performance even when accounting for UCLA's firepower.


December 13th, 2016 at 12:10 AM ^

You mention UM's defensive performance was worse than Pacific.  How do you factor in that Leaf and Ball are probably getting more comfortable playing college ball, playing in the UCLA offense and the UCLA team is getting more comfortable playing with each other and with their roles?  Pacific was their very first game.  By the time they played UM Leaf and Ball had 8 more games under their belt.  Holliday is more accustomed to coming off the bench and the UCLA team as a whole is coming off a huge confidence boosting victory over UK at Rupp arena, where they didn't just beat UK, they controlled the game for the last 30 minutes.  


December 13th, 2016 at 1:18 AM ^

it was worse than UC Riverside - by a lot - and they're the 201st best defensive team in teh country. UCLA played them just two games before Michigan.

It was a lethal combo of bad defense and UCLA shooting lights out.  But a lot of bad defense. Watch those cilps!


December 12th, 2016 at 5:03 PM ^

Obvious That Recruits Matter
UCLA's freshman dominated our seniors/juniors. Only one of our freshman played in non-garbage time and looked lost. I like JB and think he has done a good job, but the trajectory is not looking good. People always debate whether Michigan can be elite and compete with UCLA, Kansas and Kentucky consistently. For me it must be about competing with MSU. With JB's contract and age(relative to retirement), the AD has a hard choice. Make a change or ride out the next 4-5 years until JB retires.

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December 12th, 2016 at 5:55 PM ^

Watching this game made it clear that the talent on this team is no where near elite level. While I don't agree with the Michigan can't be elite argument, at this point they aren't even close to the second tier of teams in terms of talent. While I agree that JB is a pretty good coach, I am unclear why so many people think our mid major talent level is acceptable.


December 12th, 2016 at 5:25 PM ^

One sentence I had to re-read multiple times.  I was convinced that "no-late-heavy shot" meant the 3 to end the first half wouldn't be counted.

Need sleepy.


December 12th, 2016 at 5:44 PM ^

ball with perimeter shooters and athletes at every spot like very few other college teams. Ripping apart Michigan's defense based on this one outing doesn't seem that productive. I'm more concerned with MAAR's regression and Walton's disappearance.


December 12th, 2016 at 6:01 PM ^

to me this game was as much about the gap in talent between the programs as anything else.  Sure, Michigan could have played better defensively, but against the other power 5ish teams they've played so far (Marquette, SMU, South Carolina, VaTech and Texas) UM's defense has been pretty solid.  A lot of teams are going to have bad defensive outings against the Bruins this year.


December 12th, 2016 at 7:37 PM ^

article was to show that it was, in fact, bad defense and not just good offense.  And as Ace pointed out, this was by far the worst performance by a team against UCLA this year - worse than teams that are ranked in the 200s and 300s in defense.  They did not play focused.  I agree that they played a lot better against other decent to good teams so hopefully was just the distance/jet lag.


December 12th, 2016 at 7:08 PM ^

The first half problem wasn't that they weren't getting a hand up. Getting a hand up when six+ feet away does nothing and potentially hurts.  It's still too easy to shoot over players that far away with a hand up, and it's not conducive to a good defensive stance to try to be vertical when the offensive player still has a dribble-drive option.  They'll just go right around the defender.

What they need to be doing here is playing closer to the offensive player.  You never try to block three point shots unless you're a super long 6'11 shot blocker.  So the only thing Robinson and Irvin can (and should) be doing here is playing much closer to these guys.  In both of these instances, the defenders had plenty of time to get up on their guys coming out of the weave.  When you're closer to a guy on the perimeter, you can be in your defensive stance which allows you to stay with a guy that penetrates, but you can also rake the ball out around the chest area if he tries to pull up (which is why guys just don't take threes when a player is closely defending).

Robinson is a horrible dribble-drive defender so he tends to play off everyone which gives up the three. With him, it's either give up the three or get up on the guy and inevitably allow the guy to go around him. Against a team on which everyone shoots 40%+ from three, and with shot blocking bigs for the first time, I think you have have to extend on the perimeter.  Bad strategy or lazy defense to play off shooters like they did (of course, you give up the 35 footers and tip your hat if they make them). Also, Irvin is a good enough defender that he needs to be up closer to these guys.  He has a chance of keeping them in front, and again, funneling them to your shot-blockers is now an option.  That's actually the staple of the pack-line defense: get up on the guy with the ball because you have help from everywhere.

I'm also shocked at the frequency of mental mistakes Robsinson makes.  He's a fourth year guy.  He has no athleticism and can't keep guys from going around him, but he can't be making mental mistakes and just losing guys the way he did there in the second half.  He just stopped and watched the guy with the ball instead of going with him man.

Loving these defensive gifs and analysis, Ace.  Keep it up.


December 12th, 2016 at 8:33 PM ^

My take is a combination of problems - no depth and no resilency.  Irvin and Walton are playing too many minutes and seemed worn down most of the game (frankly all games).  Hard to play defense when you senior leaders are winded.  It also leads to mental mistakes (hero ball, turnovers).  It seems only Wagner has any passion/competitiveness.  Yes, at this level, they are all competitive but Robinson getting lost on that 2nd Half 3 was embarassing.  MAAR doesn't seem to be battling stopping dribble penetration this year.  I don't see a team fighting possession to possesion on defense.  


December 12th, 2016 at 8:37 PM ^

We got in the bonus realtively early in the 2nd Half (if I recall correctly), but didn't take advantage on trying to get in the lane / get to the foul line.  In a game like this (where you have less talent and on the road), you need to take advantage of situations in your favor. 


December 12th, 2016 at 8:48 PM ^

we just didn't get fouled on most drives. We only took eight threes in the second half and attacked the basket more than we ever do (which was weird considering our first half success shooting from deep), but missed a lot of layups (DJ, MAAR, Robinson) and had at least a couple blocked. Our game is not driving and getting fouled.  We just don't have players that are dangerous enough driving the ball that other team is compelled to foul.


December 12th, 2016 at 8:50 PM ^

Fair enough.  Robinson missing the wide open bunny in 2nd half (if you recall he could have dunked) was very demoralizing.  It would be nice to have a guard that could finish around the rim/get to the line (whether PG or SG).....


December 13th, 2016 at 1:25 AM ^

but he was a lot better than he is now, when he's attempting to finish at the rim at all.  He shot 45% from 2 his freshman year which is ok for a guard considering he was a 79% FT shooter and many of those would have come because of driving to the hole.  The memorable finish was the amazing and-1 at MSU to put UM up six with a couple minutes to go.

Alas, he shot 32% from two his second year (yes, injury riddled), but only 36% last year, he's down to 28% (!!!) this year, and he's not even trying anymore.  Taking fewer than three 2-pointers per game, by far the least in his career.

No idea what's happened to him, but you're right, he almost seems to have regressed during his career.


December 13th, 2016 at 12:44 AM ^

My thoughts: Right now Michigan is all over the place. I honestly believe that there is a huge learning process going on right now, and that has resulted in a lot of inconsistency. 

Some games Michigan looks like a terrible offensive team with a very good defense (I would include South Carolina here), some games the defense is poor but the Offense is great to excellent (yesterday and first half of Virginia Tech), yet others both are clicking and the team looks like an easy top 25 team (SMU and Marquette).

Irvin and Walton have had some awful games so far as has MAAR - Irvin has probably been as inconsistent as anyone on this team. Wilson is inconsistent defensively - looks like the rim protector we've been waiting for since Beilein became the coach one game and then the next plays lazy and fouls easily.

I just don't think we've seen what this team is going to be yet. Way too much inconsistency. If all things are clicking, we have the chance to have an offense somewhere inbetween first and second half against UCLA with a much better defense that they've shown recently. My guess is this has something to do with the fact that playing actual Defense is still something new for this team with it being Coach Donlon's first season.

If Wagner can learn to stay out of foul trouble and Wilson becomes a much more consistet defender who also can stay out of foul trouble, I seriously think this team has the potential to do some damage come Big 10 and tournament season. Again, I don't think we've seen anything close to what the finished product will be at the end of the season - there is a lot of learning going on at the moment, and each player has had their moments of excellent play that show that they have not actually forgot how to do the things they've done well in the past. I don't think we should give up hope yet as I do believe that there's a really good chance that at some point things will click for these guys. First year with a new coaching staff can do that.

Bertello NC

December 13th, 2016 at 12:14 PM ^

I felt like we had too many bad possessions and or quick and bad shots. Against a high powered offense like Ucla at home you need to be very controlled and not force or rush things IMO. It's like TOP in football. Keep their offense off the field for as long as possible. Work the ball around and take better shots. Hell I would've been happy if we threw it into DJ and MO and just let them try to beat their man. Even if it's a miss with 3 seconds left on the shot clock. Baby hook or whatever.(I know that's not what JB teaches I get that). Post positioning and entry passes are way off though when they do try to go to that. It's just not worked on enough nor any kind of focal point to be a viable option. Too many quick desperation shots in the last half of the second half that turned into quick run outs for ucla. Limit the time and possessions they have as much as possible. We didn't do that in the second half.
I also agree that Walton and Irvin logged heavy high stress minutes. These next 3-4 games need to be opportunities for Watson, Simpson, and Teske to get serious run. Albeit Simpson has not looked comfortable so far. I guess I expected him to be a little farther along than he is at this point.

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