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.
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.
Big Ten 2-pt defense:
1. MSU (41.4%)
13. Rutgers (52.4%)
14. Michigan (55.3%)
WORSE THAN RUTGERS
— Alex Cook (@_ac616) February 29, 2016
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:
Putting the data into a scatter chart should help contextualize:
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.
* * *
THE GRAPH PORTION
First, HOLY COW WE ARE BAD AT TWO-POINT DEFENSE:
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]
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.
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.