This Week's Obsession: Meaning in Beating the Meanies

Submitted by Seth on January 22nd, 2014 at 10:30 AM

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Dustin Johnston/UMHoops

On Monday I went in search of hot takes to explain Michigan's win at the Kohl center and put it in context. Those who didn't watch the game thought it a fluke, the kind of thing that just happens to Wisconsin when they have a cold night. Indiana guys wanted to take credit for showing Beilein how to beat those guys. Michigan fans were split over whether this was a peak performance or on the growth chart. So I asked our guys:

What was that?

  • A fluke of 2- or 3-point hotness/coldness that happens in Wisconsin (read: low-possession) games
  • A gift from Tom Crean, who exposed the weakness of not-as-good-as-people-thought Wisconsin
  • A signature road win from an erratic, young team that puts them on the right side of the bubble after an eventual .500 conference season
  • A maturation point of a young, fast-improving eventual Final Four contender as its freshman PG gets used to the flow of the college game and its sophomore SG emerges as an alpha dog.

What's your best explanation (or have you another?), and how did this game affect your expectations for the team come March?

BiSB: I'd rule a couple of those explanations out. The respective 3-point make rates (54% for Michigan, 39% for Wisconsin) were obviously a difference in the game, but it is hardly outlandish in context. Michigan got 9 of its 13 looks from Nik Stauskas (arguably the most dangerous 3-point sniper in the conference), who only made three, while Wisconsin's numbers were right in line with their season stats thus far. Sure Caris LeVert going 3-3 isn't terribly likely, but neither is Ben Brust going 4-5. It was also the highest-tempo conference game Michigan has played thus far, so 7 made threes for this team isn't that much of an outlier.

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Get these men a pick and watch 'em roll. [Fuller]

Second, Wisconsin remains good, so I'd rule out the Tom Crean thing (also because "let's give credit to the genius who just got worked by Northwestern AT HOME" explanation doesn't sound like fun). Third, while the team is certainly young and erratic, they have the look of much more than a bubble team.

I'd say this game reflects a team that is finding its offensive identity, and it turns out that identity is really effective and fun to watch. Wisconsin has a good defensive team (#29 on KenPom coming into the game), and there were points where Michigan was just toying with it. Teams just don't get those kinds of looks at the rim against Wisconsin, but time and again Morgan or Horford would slip a screen and find a wide-open bucket.

Michigan is doing what Brian, Ace, myself, and a bunch of other people were calling for all year; they're running lots of Stauskas pick-and-roll, as well as lots of high ball screens for Stauskas to get a defender on his hip and force the defense to create an opening. Nik has become an alpha dog, but he's done so in a way that is generating looks for everyone on the court. That might remind you of a certain scrappy little guy who ripped the Pistons to shreds on Friday (#FireJoeD)

Right now, this Michigan team feels a LOT like last year's team: a questionable defense but a terrifying offense that won't turn the ball over or give up many transition buckets. Also they're doing lots of Game Blouses stuff and Lottery GRIII stuff. Which is neat. Beilein Uber Alles. 2014 Uber Alles.

[more answers, and more editorial hash tags, after the jump]

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Mathlete: How did this game affect my expectations? Like any good Bayesian, I am predicting a national championship. Last year's team couldn't win in Wisconsin and they were national runner up. That's how these things work right?

Jack-Breslin-Student-Events-Center
Recommended site for this "even better win" if there's to be one. Heads up: if things go as usual for MSU, the Wolverines will keep it very tight all game then MSU will have their run in the closing five minutes.

OK, so not really. But it did increment expectations up a notch. Road wins against Top 5 teams are certainly not the expectation for this team's performance on an average night going forward, but it certainly is nice to see that ceiling raised. It's still hard to see this team making a major tournament run with it's two game changers from last year's run gone, but now a second weekend showing seems a lot more plausible than it did as we were closing out [404 - year not found].

There is a very good chance Michigan won't have a better win than this one when the season is finished, but it wasn't entirely fluky either. Michigan shot extremely well in the game, but they are one of the elite offenses in the country. On the surface I agree with Bryan that this year seems a lot like last year. It also seems very different since last year saw everything run through Burke and this year Stauskas, GRIII, LeVert and others have taken terms being the offensive driver. It still seems hard to see this team making a run like last year's but there is no doubt that the expectations go up with every passing game. In some ways, it feels like an odd mix of the 2012 team that squeezed out a conference championship and last year's team and 2013 Burke led group. After an uneven start to the year, you can't ask for a better start to this year's conference play. #Blessed

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Ace: While I strongly agree with BiSB's first and third points in his opening paragraph, I must quibble with his second despite my utter disdain for Tom Crean. Michigan won this game by following much the same blueprint as Indiana: find as many ways as possible to open up space inside the arc, especially off of screens, to take advantage of Wisconsin's pack-line defense and its inherently soft middle area. Nik Stauskas essentially played the role of Supersized Yogi Ferrell, who scored 25 points (9/15 2-pt, 4/5 FT) despite shooting terribly from three-point territory (1/8) and dished out four assists in the Hoosiers' upset—much of his production came off of high side screens and isolation, weak areas for this Wisconsin defense that Stauskas also exploited.

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We did the Michigan version of this. [ITH]

Indiana got out in transition and rebounded a little more while Michigan shot much better from the outside in similarly limited attempts; otherwise, their offensive outputs were quite comparable. That's not to say Crean gets the credit for this win by any stretch—the general idea behind attacking Wisconsin has been the same since Bo Ryan got there, it's just a little easier to score on them this year since they don't have a true inside presence. Still, it's hard to set aside the fact that the Wolverines utilized a very similar strategy in Wisconsin's next game; at the very least, it gave Beilein a blueprint when going over film.

My expectations are up from where they were before the game—how could they not after a win at Kohl in what should be a tight Big Ten race?—though I still believe Michigan has an uphill climb to win the conference; the Big Ten schedule didn't afford them any breaks and they matched up very well with a Wisconsin squad lacking their usual size and defensive intimidation. The soft hedging by the Badgers played right into Michigan's hands, their lack of a true power forward allowed Beilein to stick GRIII on Sam Dekker without issue, and the Wolverines' height advantage on the perimeter enabled them to put Derrick Walton in a corner and let Stauskas and LeVert be the focal points of the offense—Wisconsin lacked the requisite size to try Duke's method of ball denial, for instance.

I think we'll learn more about this team's ability in the next two games than we did on Saturday. Iowa's considerable size and excellent transition game pose significant matchup problems. Michigan State, despite injuries and inconsistency, remains the conference's team to beat; unlike Wisconsin, they have a true power forward in Branden Dawson, plus the Spartans have more lineup versatility. If Michigan can dispatch Iowa and at least hang close at Breslin, I'll believe they have a really good shot at the Big Ten title—for now, I think the schedule and their defensive issues will end up costing them by a game or two.

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Seth: The genesis of this question was from this Ryan Corazza article from Inside the Hall. Two of the four plays he outlined were just Wisconsin losing the left wing in transition and two were scores off the first pass. The one that interested me most was where Wisconsin was soft hedging, and (backup SG) Stanford Robinson ran right by it, then into the driving lane and right past the defenders.

What we saw against Wisconsin was the same response to the screen, but they'd been coached to fix the glaring mistakes behind it. The result was Wolverine shooters coming off a high screen and being like "Where'd everybody go? Huh. I guess I'll shoot."

At the end of the first half--when that 10-point lead started ebbing away--we got a good look at how this strategy was supposed to work (start at about 2:00 in the 1st).

  • Irvin passes to LeVert at the top of the key and crosses, Morgan sets a cross screen, defender chases behind, Dekker switches onto LeVert and is backing up, so long two is open, took, missed.
  • Stauskas starts, Morgan sets a ball screen, defender chases, Dekker rotates onto him and is backing up, so Stauskas takes the shot, rim.

Same thing happened again on the first play out of the half. Both the ITH article and Ace's highlight reel above show a guy sagging off a three-point shooter, who just takes the shot. They didn't do that versus Michigan, but what they did to fix it Michigan used (note that the stats show Indiana scored 52 points in the paint).

So while I agree with Ace that the blueprint was there—both Stapleton and Dylan led off their analysis this week with "Wisconsin can't defend a ball screen"—I think the actual things that opened up for Michigan were a reaction to the reaction. Wisconsin felt exposed after Indiana and tried to plug the hole, and Beilein was ready to attack that adjustment.

If we can learn something from this, it's that Michigan's offense is getting to the point where it's just hard to shut down. There's so many tools providing pressure (Irvin's and Walton's shooting, Stauskas and LeVert able to create, Morgan's screens, Robinson's athleticism) that can be on the court at once that if you give 'em a crack they'll  blow through it. I think Indiana showed that Wisconsin's defense has cracks.

Side note: how has nobody sent video like this to league officials and put a stop to it? This time it's Gasser throwing a hip check on Walton while he's in the air, but many Badgers have been doing that more than any other team I've watched, and for years. No call because Michigan never gets and-one's. It's long past due for some team to lose a lottery pick for the season to these subtle flight plan redirections and go ape-shit. And then they'll call a foul and Bo Ryan will go ape-shit.

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Brian Placeholder:

bobriantrolling

Comments

ScruffyTheJanitor

January 22nd, 2014 at 10:37 AM ^

But I could totally see Michigan finnishing somewhere between 2 and 4 in the conference-- but out perform themselves in the tournament.  Of course, Walton and Irvin could start to develop quite a bit and change that ceiling.

Indiana Blue

January 22nd, 2014 at 10:49 AM ^

is really key when playing away from home.  The team got confidence and crowd and Wisconsin's team were likely saying ... WTF?

Tonight's game should show what Iowa really is.  The ohio win seemed incredible, but most likely exposed ohio as an average team that hasn't played anyone.  Which may also summarize Iowa, the blown win at Wisconsin and win @ ohio also tells me this Iowa team is solid, so I'm looking for a game that Michigan needs to play near the top of its ability to win ... which they will.

Go Blue!

Elmer

January 22nd, 2014 at 11:16 AM ^

I'm still surprised Walton can shoot 36% from behind the arc jumping forward on his shot.  I just expect the ball to draw heavy rim.  With Stauskas, any miss for him is like watching another player miss a lay-up.  You just expect it to go in with his great form.

Monocle Smile

January 22nd, 2014 at 11:19 AM ^

If we weren't leading the entire game, I'd have flipped tables due to the horrific, inconsistent officiating. It wasn't necessarily poor quality, but definitely one-sided...Morgan gets called off-ball for breathing on someone while Gasser chops Walton like that and Robinson gets five-starred every time he goes to the rim. I don't understand why we can't get and-one calls.

Nitro

January 22nd, 2014 at 11:22 AM ^

From my perspective, Wisconsin looked like the less talented team trying to find a way to pull an upset (basically by trying to make enough beyond the arc, and they almost did), which I think is somewhat of a reflection of the Badgers being vastly overrated by virtue of their fast start.

This Michigan team is improving and has a real good shot at the B1G title, but we still give up way too many easy baskets to be considered a national contender (team's get very low post position way, way too easily, and our perimeter D against dribble penetration - namely, Stauskas, Levert, Irvin - needs work).  This team played about well as it's capable of against Arizona but still couldn't get the W, simply because we allowed them to get 3-feet and in with the ball too easily.  Without that happening, Arizona, which is the best team in the country, didn't have enough answers for us, but it happened against them, against ISU, and against Charlotte (against Duke we just sucked).

When teams start posting up the small forward we play at 4, which they inevitably always do, we absolutely need to start doubling down (as opposed to simply having our center coming across the lane to help -- how many times has that burned us on rebounds and putbacks?).  If it means leaving a shooter open at the arc, so be it.  They'll still miss at a higher rate than the guy who'd be shooting a 2-footer in the post, which means more opportunities in transition instead going against a set D in the half court.  Also, we could rotate the perimeter defenders if we're doubling off a good shooter (this team never rotates or doubles hard -- they just sag and play half-help defense).

bronxblue

January 22nd, 2014 at 1:37 PM ^

I largely agree, though I would argue that there are a relatively few number of teams that have consistent inside presences that can make UM pay for their weak post defense consistently.  I think as Beilein becomes more comfortable with Walton and Irvin out there consistently, you might see more rotations on defense to take advantage of the increased athleticism, but his teams always seem best when they just shoot the ball well and "deal" with the defense.  That's the funny thing about the tournament - you don't need to beat 63 other teams; only 6 other teams.  Provided they can keep up the offensive production, it isn't crazy for them to have favorable matchups until the very end of a run.

Soulfire21

January 22nd, 2014 at 11:45 AM ^

A quick look at Iowa's wins and their opponent's RPI ranking (top 100 RPI wins bolded)

  • UNC-Wilimington (261)
  • UNO (116)
  • Maryland Eastern (344)
  • Abilene Christian (327)
  • Penn (293)
  • Xavier (32)
  • UTEP (115)
  • Notre Dame (90)
  • Drake (157)
  • FDU (216)
  • ARPB (272)
  • Nebraska (69)
  • Northwestern (111)
  • @OSU (15)
  • Minnesota (30)

Iowa has only won one true road game, and has only played 3 this season (losing to Iowa State and Wisconsin in the others).

SF Wolverine

January 22nd, 2014 at 12:04 PM ^

still kind of unclear how the B10 will play out.  MSU obviously solid, but injured, and generally play their best ball starting March 1.  Iowa big, experienced, but with a devalued win at Columbus, not an awesome resume.  Not your father's Wisconsin.

So, race is open for the upstarts, and we have been blessed with a pretty nice on-ramp to the B10 season.  Key to me is whether we can avoid looking like a young team making young mistakes and getting behind the curve when Iowa makes an offensive run.

umchicago

January 22nd, 2014 at 12:09 PM ^

of all the people on msu to be worried about, it shouldn't be brandon dawson.  he's probably the 5th option on msu's offense and has had a very disappointing underachieving career.  if payne is out, i really like our chances.  if he plays, let's hope they have a cold nite from the perimeter.

gbdub

January 22nd, 2014 at 12:25 PM ^

The hot start and tourney run make it easy to forget how shaky the 2013 team looked at times in the B1G, and how surprised we were that the team made it past the Sweet 16.

So while I don't think the 2014 edition is as good as the squad that was a legitimate title contender last March, they may well be as good as the team that was a few plays away from a conference title. And that's still pretty damn good, and would probably be enough for a banner if we defend home court and steal one more big road win.

AlwaysBlue

January 22nd, 2014 at 12:34 PM ^

that anyone thinks Beilein needed Crean to show him anything on offense. Michigan probably has the most diverse offense since JB has been in Ann Arbor. They are not relying on a ball dominant PG for the first time in years and they have more quicks at every perimeter position. The bigger question is if Nik can be effective against more athletic defenders but even if not, JB has options.

ClearEyesFullHart

January 22nd, 2014 at 12:54 PM ^

I don't think anyone thinks Michigan will wind up  with a .500 record in conference.  That'd mean 4 more wins total(13 games left).  I'd expect we'll be there by some time mid-February(if not earlier). 

I guess I'd want more elaboration before I voted "Final 4 Contender" too.  I think Michigan and 10 or 12 other teams will be in contention to make the Final 4, but they're certainly not a lock to make it there.  From a macro perspective, there is sure to be at least one coin toss that will have to go our way(see Kansas last year)  for that to happen.

 

legalblue

January 22nd, 2014 at 12:55 PM ^

This team has the ability to reach another final four.  Of course that could be said about probably 3 teams in the B1G.  We're going to live and die by our shooting percentage though.  If the current numbers are sustainable over the long term then we're golden.  This is of course factoring in the one inexplicable game where NOTHING goes in ever.  If however we're not able to hit those gorgeous two point jumpers that Stauskas, GRIII, and Levert were just nailing against Wisconsin at a 60% clip we're in trouble.

charblue.

January 22nd, 2014 at 12:58 PM ^

is whether it's a reflection of this team's ability or a good shooting night, well, the answer is both. Whether it means this team can sustain that performance through the rest of the season, time will tell. 

What you are looking for as keys to any great season is the ability of your team to understand their strengths and weaknesses so they play confidently to strengths and avoid or have the capability of playing tthrough the pitfalls of their limitations. At this point, this team has shown the ability to make plays in the clutch to win close games which they didn't do in the non-conference. Part of that was uncertainty over roles, how guys would play accordingly. 

So, what did we see and learn? This: Michigan is an extremely unselfish team with scoring ability at every starting position. The team lost its first road game in Iowa State and then to Duke, along with a nuetral site contest to Charlotte on its worst shooting night of the season. Nobody could put the ball in the basket. 

Michigan then lost its only home game to Arizona and had a chance to win but gave up a lead late. That continues to be a a trend with this team but now they are making plays, both offensively and defensively when they give up leads. Learning how to close teams out is the next step in the learning process to build on what they have already accomplished. 

This is a progression of tests and lessons learned. They are going to have off nights and many challenges with adversity ahead. But they seem on target in development of a team that evokes the same kind of growth as last year's team. 

The other night when their 15 point lead over the Badgers had virtually evaporated late and the game was on the line, Coach Belein called timeout and told his guys that anyone who was afraid to shoot in that situation needed to come out, because they needed agressive offense and guys willing to take the last shot and be accountable. That's what the game is ultimately all about and what defines you as a team. That capability and willingness to fail in order to succeed as a champion. 

I think Michigan is learning about itself every game, and what they need to do in order to compete and win against varied competitio. So far, so good. 

93Grad

January 22nd, 2014 at 1:26 PM ^

with 4 or fewer losses and Michigan just on the outside with 5 or 6 losses.  That could all change with a win or two this week, but I don't think we have the horses to beat Sparty in a season long race. 

As for the tourney they should be a Sweet 16 team, but that can be such a crapshoot depending on how you match up with the teams in your bracket.

jsquigg

January 22nd, 2014 at 5:44 PM ^

People were raving about Wisconsin's offense, and rightly so, going into Saturday's game.  What no one in the sports media mentioned was that Michigan's offense was actually better.  The Big Ten is good, but it's not as good top to bottom as it was last year, at least not yet, and Michigan may be more effective on offense than they were last year.  While no one on the team may be as good as Trey Burke, the offense is more diversified because it is more spread out.  Stauskas, Levert, GRIII and even Walton can beat you off the dribble and shoot.  Albrecht is a threat and I think Irvin is going to be a heck of a player before it's all said and done.  Announcers whine about the lack of post up offense occasionally, but Morgan and Horford are perfect in this offense where they absolutely punish defenders for helping by finishing.  The Wolverines lack of an elite defense might in fact cost them, but they had an above average to good defense last year and made a run.  We will obviously learn more as the season progresses, but I have a good feeling about this being another team that busts the "defense wins championships" meme.

Jonesy

January 22nd, 2014 at 6:00 PM ^

All this win showed me was that Wisconsin is the same mediocre, over-achieving team they always are.  Michigan looked like the better team all day and deserved this win.  Similarly after seeing more of the other big ten teams, it's not that Michigan is a lot better than I thought they were (only a little) it's that the rest of the big ten doesn't look anywhere near as good as I thought they were.  Indiana looks terrible, MSU without payne looks only slightly better than Indiana, OSU is nothing special, etc etc.  Michigan has at least a good a shot at the B1G title as any of the other top teams.