Visualizing Michigan’s Defensive Struggles Comment Count

Alex Cook March 2nd, 2016 at 11:12 AM



As time winds down on the regular season, Michigan finds itself squarely on the bubble – the classic meh major-conference team that gets sent to Dayton as an 11-seed. Big Ten play is almost over and we know the Wolverines were a middle-of-the-road team (as of right now: 7th in Sagarin’s and Pomeroy’s ratings, 7th in conference efficiency margin, and are likely to tie Ohio State as the 7th place team in the league). When your best resume asset is that you haven’t lost to any bad teams, it hasn’t been a great season. The very real possibility that Michigan misses the NCAA Tournament would qualify this year as a big disappointment.

Still, even though Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht have combined to play just 48 minutes against Big Ten opponents, Michigan will finish with a winning record in Big Ten play and (probably) a positive efficiency margin in league play. This season’s path was very comparable to last season’s: the teams had uninspiring non-conference performances and Caris was lost near the beginning of league play (and Spike and Derrick Walton were injured this year and last, respectively). A year ago, the Wolverines finished 8-10 in Big Ten play – losing four overtime games and winning one – and this year, 10-8 or 11-7 will be the final result. Since Michigan didn’t drop a stinker like NJIT or Eastern Michigan like last season, we’re going to be nervously watching on Selection Sunday – can 3 good wins and a bunch of chalk get us in?

The reason why Michigan hasn’t been better is fairly obvious.

From Brian’s post on Monday:

I don't expect Michigan to be actually good at defense for a lot of different reasons, but there's a difference between Michigan's usual meh and this. The trend is worrying. Defensive efficiency in the Beilein era:

  • 2008: 100th
  • 2009: 69th
  • 2010: 58th
  • 2011: 37th
  • 2012: 61st
  • 2013: 48th
  • 2014: 109th
  • 2015: 107th
  • 2016: 145th

This is the third straight year of a triple-digit ranking. While you may remember things as "not good" even when the larger picture was much prettier, this is a whole new era of ineptness only matched by Beilein's first team of castoffs and runaways. This year's team is in fact considerably worse despite than those guys despite having a reasonable amount of experience. For the first time in a while Michigan doesn't have a freshman playing major minutes; for the first time in a while they've crawled out of the 300s in Kenpom's experience stat. This was the first year in a while you could reasonably expect year to year improvement, and yet.

When you’re worse than Rutgers at something as critical as 2-point FG % defense, you have a major problem.

[After the JUMP, a lot of graphs]

The best way to assess a team’s quality in conference play is to look at its efficiency on both sides of the floor. Even though there’s unbalanced scheduling (and there are still 13 games total left to play), it gives us a good idea of the league hierarchy:

b1g em chart

GTFO Rutgers

Putting the data into a scatter chart should help contextualize:

b1g em

Rutgers falls way out of the normal range for every graph on here. It’s just not worth distorting the info so much to include an extreme outlier like Rutgers.

Unsurprisingly, the six teams that fall in the bottom right corner – good offense and good defense – are the Big Ten’s sure NCAA Tournament teams; out of the three teams that are good on one side of the floor and bad on the other, Michigan is the only one with a realistic shot of making it into the tournament.

While the lack of individual player data on defense somewhat limits our ability to diagnose the most specific issues on defense, team stats, the eye test, and some common sense should give us a pretty clear idea. First the obvious: Michigan’s only guard off the bench is a walk-on who wasn’t supposed to play; the Wolverines are forced to rotate between Duncan Robinson and Aubrey Dawkins* on the wing and those two are very clear defensive minuses – Robinson, who’s shot 36% from three in Big Ten play, plays 62% of available minutes compared to Dawkins’s 51% from three and 39% of available minutes; the backup center position has been mostly a disaster, notwithstanding Ricky Doyle’s nice game against Wisconsin.

Even the comparatively good defenders haven’t exactly impressed. Derrick Walton and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman play a lot (because 2 of our 4 rotation guards have gone down with injury) and both have shown flashes of great defense as well as games where they’re blown by continuously. Zak Irvin has been pretty solid, but was physically overwhelmed by Nigel Hayes this past weekend (but has won some strategic mismatches this year) and he has to exert a ton of energy on both ends to be effective. Mark Donnal has a few puzzlingly authoritative blocks a game and has a good block rate, but he’s not an imposing rim protector.

This team struggles with man. Its zones haven’t been very effective either, which is especially disappointing due to Michigan’s length and the presence of at least one guy you need to hide on defense being on the floor at almost all times.

* * *



2pt d vs de

beilein 2 pt d

I subscribe to the theory that three-point defense is mostly random and that Michigan’s slightly-better-than-average three-point defense is pretty much an aberration; since the Wolverines concede plentiful scoring opportunities inside the arc, many of the looks opponents have been missing were pretty good. Since Michigan’s ability to prevent threes ranks 12th in the conference, I’m willing to hazard a guess that their three-point defense is more lucky than good.

Fortunately, that lucky three-point defense is the difference between Michigan’s Effective FG % defense being simply really bad (as in “stuck in 13th between Minnesota and Rutgers” really bad) as opposed to apocalyptically bad (like Michigan’s two-point defense, which ranks 63 out of 64 in the last five years of Big Ten play). I remember Brian comparing Michigan’s general strategy to “H.O.R.S.E.” once – limiting turnovers, offensive rebounds, and free throw attempts on both sides of the ball, to force the game into being a shooting contest – and that’s not exactly a feasible strategy, seeing as how Michigan’s offense isn’t elite anymore, though still very good.

Effective field goal percentage is the stat that most heavily correlates with offensive success; as the wonderful Dan Dakich likes to note: “it’s a make or miss game”. Since Michigan’s defense is atypically bad at allowing makes – like, the type of bad that should probably preclude you from even being a bubble team – how are they able to keep their heads above water?

[cues montage of Derrick Walton skying over opponents for a man-rebound]

def reb rate beilein

def rebound rate

The improvement here is stark. For years, Beilein’s undersized squads battled against the Big Ten and usually held their own enough on the glass – though they usually were outrebounded by bigger, stronger, and more athletic opponents. This season, Michigan’s lineup – which certainly wouldn’t strike you as a formidable rebounding team – is third in the Big Ten in defensive rebounding, the best of Beilein’s career in Ann Arbor by a sizable margin. The distribution of those rebounds is pretty wacky: Kenpom sorts players into positions with an algorithm – Michigan’s centers grab the 344th-highest % of their team’s defensive rebounds, the “power” forwards 333th-highest, the small forwards 44th-highest, the shooting guards 136th-highest, the point guards 4th-highest. Michigan’s minutes at SF and PG are filled mostly by Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, respectively.

Those two may be underrated in their impact on the defensive glass. While shot defense is obviously important, for most college teams, defensive success correlates second-most heavily with defensive rebounding out of the Four Factors – something that has usually been true of Michigan under John Beilein. This is a year of statistical extremes for Michigan on both offense and defense: the two-point defense and, by extension, the Effective FG % defense has been horrible, the turnover rate has been slightly below average, and the defensive rebounding and free throw rate have been excellent.

ft rate

lg avg ft rate

Beilein has always emphasized defending without fouling – I checked if there was any correlation between good defensive free throw rate and bad two-point defense, and there wasn’t any. (I still don’t know why Beilein loves the auto-bench strategy when his players seemingly never foul, but that’s neither here nor there). While Michigan’s ability to avoid fouling is a nice bonus, it’s nowhere near as unexpected as the Wolverines’ success on the defensive glass.

* * *


  • Any field goal attempt by the opponent is a bad outcome (one that’s worth 1.11 PPP in Big Ten play) for Michigan. This is obviously not good for a basketball team.
  • The defense inside the arc – the shot defense that the defense has the most control over – is especially bad. It’s pretty much degrees of magnitude worse than anything else we’ve seen under Beilein. Again: obviously not good for a basketball team.
  • #wellactually Michigan’s defensive rebounding is good. Limiting second-chance opportunities is critical when you defend shots as badly as Michigan does. We’ve seen how frustrating it is to get killed on the boards; thankfully it’s rare this year.
  • Defensive rebounding is the secret magic that’s propping up Michigan’s defense from being bad enough to pretty much eliminate the Wolverines from even being a bubble team. Zak and Derrick are underrated because of this.
  • Not letting opponents get to the free throw line is also good. But not as good as preventing them from getting offensive rebounds.
  • The defense is still bad. No way around that.



March 2nd, 2016 at 11:49 AM ^

I know this blog hates the auto-bench policy. I don't always like it either. But there is probably a strong correlation to the auto-bench policy and the fact that Beilein's teams don't foul very often. It probably isn't reasonable to think the team would stay at the same rate of fouls if they know they will stay in the game regardless of number of fouls relative to game time left. 


March 2nd, 2016 at 12:24 PM ^

I'd prefer Michigan players keep their eyes on the hips of their man playing one-on-one, not turn their heads away from the ball playing zone and stay in their stance the whole time they are defending someone. Rotating and closing out faster would be nice also.  Fix the fundamentals first, then I'll worry about whether a higher foul rate is better than 2 pt defense.


March 2nd, 2016 at 12:07 PM ^

I don't follow your logic. The autobench allows more minutes for players into the game without concern of getting into foul trouble. Furthermore, starters have lower foul committed rates than bench players, so if Irvin has to take a seat, Kam Chatman comes in and is more likely to commit a foul.

The bottom line is, Beilein makes it a point of emphasis not to foul. It doesn't have anything to do with the autobenching, but it might have something to do with two point defense.


March 2nd, 2016 at 12:22 PM ^

If you know you are going to be benched the second you get a foul called against you. Or you will automatically sit the remainder of the first half as soon as you get your second foul or you will sit out the majority of the second half once you get your third foul or you will be substitutionally rotated the second you get your fourth foul, that is a very strong incentive to never foul, ever, far more than simple coaching can teach.


March 2nd, 2016 at 3:21 PM ^

I agree there are serious side affects to this coaching style. I think it makes sense when you have an extremely thin bench. i.e. Steal 3 -5 minutes earlier in the game when you still have time to make up any deficit playing your liabilities caused. It also helps rest key players over the course of a game. This makes sense when the delta between the starter and back up is huge. Defense has been so bad no matter who is in the game I don't see as big of a delta so why not let em run and if a starter fouls out, oh well. 


March 2nd, 2016 at 11:52 AM ^

We can break this down until we are blue in the face, but as long as Beilein is the coach we're never going to be a good defnesive team. Beilein beats people one way, with his offense, and as Brian mentioned Monday if that doesn't work he doesn't have a plan B.

The recruiting has fallen off a cliff and attendance is at a 5 year low. Beilein has been a head coach for 34 years yet has only made it to/past the Sweet 16 four times. He's only made the NCAA's a third of the time and he's missed on average every 3 years here at Michigan. It's looking more and more likely that 2013 and 2014 were abberations and that Beilein is returning to his historical norm, which is producing bubble teams capable of wining 1 game in the NCAA's before bowing out. This is highly depressing, especially when you look at what is going on with our chief rivals in East Lansing. 

Bottom line I don't expect a 63 year old man to suddenly change the way he recruits, how he coaches defense, or to suddenly start to value rebounding and a rim protector. I'm afraid this is what we're stuck with. Will be interesting to see how Warde handles this. I'm sure Nike isn't pleased it's sinking $169 million into this outfit with the way things currently are. 


March 2nd, 2016 at 12:27 PM ^

to call 2013-14 an aberration since last year was a mulligan due to extensive injuries. And this year we lost both our seniors, including a projected first round NBA pick, for most of the season.  Yet we still have a good chance at making the tourney.  I call that good coaching.

I think you're forgetting that Beilein got his team to an elite eight and within one bucket of the Final Four against a monster Kentucky squad WITHOUT their best player in Mitch McGary and their lottery pick PG from the previous year's final four squad.

Beilein's coaching does have it's weaknesses with defense and rebounding.  And his big man recruiting has been very subpar and lacking in athleticism.  But he has basically the same team back next year PLUS a decent four man recruiting class including a top 50 PG, an underrated wing and two very promising big men.

As for recruiting, this will likely always be a problem since he's at a disadvantage to other top programs who either skirt the rules and/or recruit bad characters.

Give him a chance with a healthy squad and a full roster.






March 2nd, 2016 at 12:41 PM ^

both ways.  You can't deny them credit for both close wins and close losses.  Their comeback against Kansas was a combination of exceptional play on their part and a little luck.  But that's basketball.  As for bad luck, they outplayed Louisville in the title game and would have won if they didn't have grossly incompetent officiating.  And the next year, they could have easily beaten Kentucky if Harrison doesn't make a ridiculous long three at the end.  Bottom line, they were one possession away from the Final Four against  a Kentucky team loaded with NBA caliber talent.... even though they were seriously shorthanded themselves.

If you don't call that elite coaching, you just don't know basketball.


March 2nd, 2016 at 12:44 PM ^

you were giving them credit for a win without mentioning that it was close, and pointing out that a loss was close. Just want consistency. 

Beilein had 3 NBA players when he was playing kentucky. not exactly shorthanded. 




March 2nd, 2016 at 1:07 PM ^

we weren't shorthanded even though we were missing our best big man, a future first round NBA pick, and had to play a team with a front court including 6-9 Julius Randle (future lottery pick), 7-0 Dakari Johnson (a second NBA pick), 6-9 Marcus Lee (McD AA) and 6-8 Alex Poythress (McD AA)? 

That's nuts.

We just didn't have the insane depth Kentucky had (and nobody had) so losing McGary left us shorthanded against a team that could replace an injured future 7 foot NBA lottery pick (Cauley-Stein) with another 7 foot future NBA player in addition to an already loaded NBA caliber front court.


March 2nd, 2016 at 1:45 PM ^

Kentucky was missing its top center.

Msu had a better roster because calipari built a better roster. Each had the roster they built minus one key players.


March 2nd, 2016 at 1:08 PM ^

Last year was not a mulligan. It counted just like every other year. Levert wasn't even supposed to be here this year, and they were getting blown out with him in the lineup when he was healthy.

I'm not forgetting anything about Beilein. He's had two great years and a bunch of average to bad ones. How much longer is he going to live off of those two years, which have proven to be statisitical abberations?

You say we have the same team back next year like it's a good thing. Newsflash, the same team that missed the NIT last year is the same team this year. I'm amazed at the excuses some Michigan fans continue to make for this guy.


March 2nd, 2016 at 1:49 PM ^

"last year was not a mulligan"

I could refresh you on the injury carnage last year but it's obvious you wouldn't understand the significance of a depleted roster in basketball anyway

"how much longer is he going to live off those two years, which have proven to be statistical aberrations?"

I'm not sure "statistical aberration" means what you think it means.

"You say we have the same team back next year like it's a good thing"

It is.  We will have the same roster with more experience PLUS a decent four man class as I described.  If you don't understand the importance of experience and four additional likely quality players on the roster, I don't know how to explain it to you.

"I'm amazed at the excuses some Michigan fans continue to make for this guy." 

I'm amazed at how shortsighted many Michigan basketball fans are.  And how little they appreciate ellite coaching and a program with integrity.



March 2nd, 2016 at 2:42 PM ^

All those words and yet not one counter point with numbers or facts to back anything up you're saying. 

Missing the NCAA's for the 4th time in 9 years is not elite coaching. Making 1 final 4 in 34 years is not elite coaching. Recruiting a roster full of mid major players is not elite coaching. Ranking in the 100's 3 straight years on defense is not elite coaching.

Just stop.


March 2nd, 2016 at 8:10 PM ^

you understand the difference between elite coaching and elite recruiting. Belilein is the former but not the latter. Then again, elite recruiting typically requires a lack of integrity.

I seriously cannot believe I'm even having this discussion after what Beilein has accomplished here and what he continues to accomplish.


March 2nd, 2016 at 1:26 PM ^

This comment has zero basis in fact:


Bottom line I don't expect a 63 year old man to suddenly change the way he recruits, how he coaches defense, or to suddenly start to value rebounding and a rim protector. I'm afraid this is what we're stuck with.


Since 2008, this 63-year-old has:

  • Fired basically his entire staff.
  • Almost completely abandoned the 1-3-1 he was known for.
  • Incorporated the pic/roll game at the suggestion of his assistants, something he almost never used before
  • Told an audience at the Business School to not hire friends nor "yes men"
  • Been on record with the need to recruit shot blockers due to the new charge/block rules, as well as recruiting Teske and Davis a couple years ago

Furthermore, it's clear from the evidence that he absolutely values defensive rebounding, and almost no one emphasizes a team strategy of crashing the offensive glass (a la MSU in early aughts) because of the emphasis on defending the three in transition.


March 2nd, 2016 at 2:39 PM ^

LOL, did you really use "told an audience at the B-school not to hire yes men" to make a point. Good lord.

Things he hasn't changed:

  • An offense entirely relaiant on the three ball
  • Coaching a defense predicated on not fouling.
  • Recruiting only 3 star players from the suburbs
  • Getting his ass kicked by Ohio State, MSU, Wisconsin, and IU.
  • Missing the NCAA tournament 1/3 years since he's been here.

Other than that things are just peachy. Can't wait to see how we do in the NIT. I would say again but we missed it entirely last year.


March 2nd, 2016 at 3:14 PM ^

I dont think changing an offense reliant on the most efficient shot in basketball with 4 players on the floor capable of making 40% or better is a good idea...

I get your point that he hasn't changed everything, but relying on the 3 ball is a pretty forward thinking strategy. 




March 3rd, 2016 at 11:28 AM ^


did you really use "told an audience at the B-school not to hire yes men" to make a point. Good lord.


Things he hasn't changed:

An offense entirely relaiant on the three ball
Coaching a defense predicated on not fouling.
Recruiting only 3 star players from the suburbs
Getting his ass kicked by Ohio State, MSU, Wisconsin, and IU.
Missing the NCAA tournament 1/3 years since he's been here.


Beginning to wonder if you understand logic. Your argument was that JB refuses to change, period. I showed you how he has, in several ways; all it takes to disprove is one and that's called a "counterexample." In other words, I demonstrated how your argument is false. But, hey, this is fun, so I'll take on your points one-by-one:

  1. Um, what's not credible about communicating his philosophy of building a staff to one of the best producers of leaders in the world? Moreover, does it matter who he said it to? Even if he said it at Bingo Night in between calling out N73 and B14, it's still what he believes. JB not exactly low on the honesty list, bro.
  2. You want him to change offense to not emphasize the three? See, he's basically transformed the game to the point where there's this team in the NBA, Golden something or other, who's built their team on shooting the three, and I heard they're pretty good.
  3. Recruiting only 3 stars from the suburbs? First of all, that's blatantly false. He's recruited and will continue to recruit everywhere. Now, that may be the type of player he's landed, but it's only b/c he refuses to cheat. You want him to do that? Not very Michigan, dude. If that's what you want, go root for Kentucky.
  4. Getting his ass kicked by OSU, MSU, UW, you pretty much just listed all the B1G champs and/or Final 4 teams (outside of...Michigan) since JB's been HC. In other words, who hasn't gotten their ass kicked by these guys? Kentucky? Duke? Kansas? Okay, see point #3.
  5. Missing the NCAA tournament? Yeah, he should really stop trying to not make the NCAA tournament, so I agree with you there. /eyeroll

yossarians tree

March 2nd, 2016 at 3:02 PM ^

Beilein should be introspective enough to know that his defensive philosophy/strategy is not working, and that he needs to change his staff to get somebody in that can coach defense. B1G defense. Nothing has to say that because your good at offense you can't be good at defense. They are mutually exclusive. Most disturbing trend I've seen is that Michigan's big men take forever to develop. Even Jordan Morgan didn't start producing until his fourth year. And Horford and Bielfeldt were allowed to move on when their fifth year came around. I think they might have to take a look at Bacari Alexander's effectiveness.

Indiana Blue

March 2nd, 2016 at 11:53 AM ^

Without Caris, I think the statistical analysis is essentially "garbage in - garbage out".  We discovered that our "big men" are viable and still young, Irvin is a horrible FT shooter and very streakiy in every other part of his game, Walton needs more opportunity to rest (but no one else can lead as point guard and D rebounder) ... and we have 3 guys that can function as the "6th" man.

With no dominant team this season, in any power conference, I think we sneak in to the dance given that we do win the 8/9 game in the B1G tourney.

Go Blue! 


March 2nd, 2016 at 11:57 AM ^

Disagree. It's amazing people forget Caris Levert was in the lineup when Michigan lost to NJIT and EMU last year. He was also in the lineup for blowouts vs Xavier, SMU, and UConn this year. Michigan was also a terrible defensive team in 2014, but people forget that because it had a historically effiicent offense. The Levert injury is a conveinent excuse but one that is not rooted in reality.



March 2nd, 2016 at 12:26 PM ^

Claiming Caris didn't make the team better is dumb. Even if somehow you think being able to score 18 pts a game super efficiently while being the best passer on the team is somehow not valuable, Caris pushes Dakich off the floor which is a huge plus. Not to mention the other guys would have had more room to operate (mainly thinking Robinson and Irvin here) if Caris was still the number 1 guy on the scouting report.  Caris didn't win us the NJIT (though criticizing him for that game when he was really, really good seems dumb) game or EMU game, but a lot of the guys on the team hadn't nearly developed by that point. 

Stringer Bell

March 2nd, 2016 at 1:04 PM ^

Yes, I will point out that those wins last year came against the bottomfeeders of the conference. That season also saw 4 straight noncon losses including games against NJIT, EMU, and a massacre at Arizona. We also lost handily to Purdue and Ohio State (who were 10 and 11 seeds in the tourney IIRC) with Levert in the lineup. This year he played like 1 Big Ten game, but the results in the noncon were once again ugly. So basically all yoi have to go on is the assumption that adding a good player would make the team better but it's not that simple. Look at IU for example. They pretty much played the entire conference schedule without their leading scorer Blackmon and still won it outright. It's easy to say "well add Blackmon and IU goes undefeated in conference play" but again that's just an assumption and not grounded in any sort of evidence.


March 2nd, 2016 at 1:21 PM ^

I have literally given you a W/L record difference. I've given you some basketball logic (Levert playing 30 min means less Dakich). You keep mentioning that we had some bad losses last year (not this year mind, but last year). I think you seem to be mistaking the assumption that Levert would have made us GOOD the last two years (which I believe, but acknowledge is a based on assumptions not easily proveable) and that Levert made us BETTER. You keep mentioning that non-con last year and while it was ugly, we were also a Mark Donnal FT away from beating a 1 seed, and we also beat Syracuse. 

This year we are hanigng our hats on beating Texas, Purdue, and Maryland so far. Caris was our best player against Texas and his min against Purdue provided a tangible benefit to this team. He was the only reason the Xavier game wasn't a blowout earlier.  Anyway I'm done deabting this. If you can't see that the guy who had the highest ORtg in the NCAA while taking at least 25% of his team's possesions before he got hurt isn't valuable, then we have such divergent views of the game of basketball as to make further discussion pointless. 

Stringer Bell

March 2nd, 2016 at 1:33 PM ^

Your W-L difference didn't factor in level of competition, thus making it useless. Teams like Illinois, Minnesota, Penn State, Northwestern are all teams that we've beaten with and without Caris. We've gotten mostly blown out against good teams with and without Caris. So again, you're going off the assumption that adding a stat sheet stuffer makes us better when there is no evidence to support that. The past 2 years we've been bad with and without him. He's a good player and a future first rounder, but adding him in (and removing the 2 minutes a game that Dakich plays) doesn't automatically make us better just because you say it does.


March 2nd, 2016 at 8:02 PM ^

It is pointless to debate with the basketball illiterate anti-Beilein crowd here.

They fail to understand that a team will typically be better with their best player, a lottery pick level player before his injuries. And they fail to understand that a coach who turned this dumpster fire of a program into a championship level team in just a few years (with integrity and clean recruiting) is elite by any definition. And they also fail to understand how insane it is to consider firing him after two subpar years (one which may still end in a tourney bid) marred by massive injuries one year and then to both seniors the next year.

It's ridiculous. I seriously think they should become Kentucky or Lousville fans. Then they can enjoy an average but dirty coach win with spoiled McDonald's All Americans.


March 2nd, 2016 at 12:02 PM ^

I don't have a sophisticated understanding of how to play defense, and recognize that changing strategies can only do so much with limited talent, but that said I do have a few thoughts.

Assuming that a 2-3 zone is designed to limited inside points and drives to the paint why not try it?  I realize that to become Syracuse requires more that a few practices, but at the very least it would force teams to make their shots.

Also, I think we're overly concerned about fouls.  There's only one player that really can't do without -- Walton (possibly Irvin if he's playing well).  Dawkins, Chatman, & Doyle may not be as good as the starters but the way the starters are playing the drop off isn't huge