Where The Defense Went Wrong

Submitted by Brian on March 13th, 2014 at 12:07 PM

On the surface, Michigan's defense shouldn't have experienced the falloff it has this season. While Michigan's young, they're actually a bit older than they were last year. Mitch McGary has not been available, but there has been a groundswell of semi-indignation at Jordan Morgan's omission from the Big Ten's All Defense team.

But backslid they have. Last year's Michigan team finished the year 48th. This year's #48 defense is giving up 97.2 points per hundred possessions, adjusted for schedule. Michigan is well short of this number, at 100.6.

You'll note that this isn't actually that much. Michigan's about 6.6% worse on their possessions this year. The average NCAA defense is in fact 4% worse than last year, what with the rule tightening and virtual elimination of charges. A big chunk of the backslide is everyone's backslide. The rest, well…

The McGary Factor


watching the tourney run prompted this section, yes [Eric Upchurch]

Michigan entered last year's NCAA tournament 11th in the Kenpom rankings. Unfortunately, Kenpom doesn't keep individual running O/D rankings, but Michigan's surge to 48th on D and fourth overall coincided with Mitch McGary beasting up in the tourney. Michigan held a selection of very good teams to under a point per possession. They faced the #32, 21, 34, 12, 29, and 4 offenses in the tourney and held them to 0.97 points a trip.

McGary rebounded everything and stole everything. Michigan kept in contact  before their late surge against Kansas thanks to his 14 rebounds. He picked up three steals, as well. McGary had five(!) steals against Florida and 12 rebounds against Syracuse. Jon Gasaway was tossing out stats I can't quite remember but were pretty much "Mitch McGary's DREB rate in the tourney is ALL THE REBOUNDS."

But that was five games. Before that McGary had been limited for much of the year. His impact on the stats is far smaller than his impact in our minds. If you're looking for a reason Michigan's not going to run to the national championship game again, he applies. In a discussion of why Michigan's statistical profile on D is grim he's not a primary driver.

Transition Woes

Transition defense is a primary driver, probably the primary driver.

You've probably eyeballed this whilst exclaiming AAAAARRGGGHHH during the year, and your intuition is borne out by the stats. Michigan's actually been fine at preventing transition possessions—defined as shots in the first ten seconds of the shot clock—but they've been a lot worse at preventing dunk-and-open-three city.

Year Transition % eFG
2013 21% 54%
2014 22% 62%

This is partially because shots have migrated from two-point jumpers to shots at the rim and threes. They've also been considerably worse at preventing teams from both high-profit areas. While some of this is the new rules emphasis, transition is the part of the game where that has the least impact. Hoop-math doesn't have overall trends, unfortunately. Nor does it fold in free throws. Oh well.

With what we have to work with we can figure that a just over a fifth of Michigan's defense has gone from 1.08 PPP to 1.24 PPP. That is most of the statistical decline right there.

Morgan committing a block under 2014 rule-type substances. [Eric Upchurch]

The Insane Near-Abolition Of The Charge

There was a ton of speculation as to whether the new rules would help or hurt Michigan. Survey says: probably both. The good: offense takes off, foul trouble becomes more prevalent without touching Michigan, and Michigan's excellent free throw shooting is more prominent. The bad: Michigan's primary way to defend the rim has become more fraught with peril than ever.

FTAs have gone up nationwide, of course, and Michigan remains one of the country's least foul-prone outfits. They've dropped from first to third in that department. While that doesn't seem like a significant move, remember that thing I said in This Week's Obsession about how things tend to get stretched out at the ends of these Gaussian-ish distributions. Michigan's FTA/FGA allowed last year was preposterous 22.7, 13 points lower than the national average. This year FTAs are about 13% more common nationwide. Michigan is seeing opponents shoot 23% more FTAs.

If Michigan was in the middle of the pack that effect would feature a 40 spot dip in FTA/FGA; since Michigan was the nation's best by some distance a year ago it looks like they're basically the same. They are not.

Most of this is Jordan Morgan clutching his head and shooting imaginary eye lasers at the refs. His fouls per 40 minutes have leapt from 3.5 to 5.3, and one dollar says almost all of that is the charge random number generator being recalibrated away from defenders. The other difference that doesn't seem to be this year's whistle emphasis is increased playing time for the relatively foul-prone Spike Albrecht, who also gets whistled for a lot of ARE YOU SERIOUSLY HIGH RIGHT NOW SERIOUSLY blocking calls.

Free Throw Defense

Michigan was pretty good at it last year (68.5, 118th) and is miserable at it this year (72.9, 321st). Just one of those things. Every time I mention this someone asks about whether the distribution of shots between posts and guards is impacting this, and every time I say "maybe, but if so that is probably just luck as well."


We're Done

This post was going to be longer. But:

  • Michigan is a better defensive rebounding team this year, both in conference and overall.
  • Michigan's TO force rate has dropped, but again so has the rest of D-I's. They were 240th last year. This year they are 243rd.
  • Michigan's eFG allowed on half-court possessions has gone from 46.3% to… 45.9%. IE, it has improved in a tougher environment to play D.

They're not fouling more, they're not allowing more shots per possession, they're not allowing teams to shoot better in their half court sets. 100% of the defensive regression from last year to this year is on crappier transition D and charges being broken.

Is This Good Or Bad?

Well, it indicates what kind of team you'd like to see Michigan deal with in the tournament: slow ones. Failing that, it seems good that there's such an obvious problem that Michigan can try to mitigate by dumping a ton of practice time into.

On the other hand, we just saw Indiana chew Michigan up in transition, and they're not an efficient team in that department. They are a frequent team, with 28% of their shots coming quickly. But a big chunk of that is Indiana taking debatable shots quickly because they know their half court offense is going to suck. That's an obvious reaction, one Michigan should have seen coming. And yet there were multiple Indiana transition baskets of of Michigan makes. Almost 40% of Indiana's attempts were in transition*. This is not a waning issue.

Michigan has been able to slow down transition-oriented teams this season. Iowa and Michigan State are 6th and 13th at putting up early shots, respectively, and Michigan is 3-1 against those teams with three respectable defensive showings. (The two MSU games look bad because Izzo spent two solid minutes at the end of each game in a foul/matador cycle, but prior to that both games featured MSU at right around one PPP.) In the fourth, Iowa ran out to a big lead with a bunch of threes from Roy Devyn Marble, some of them in painfully wide open transition. 30% of Iowa's shots were fast, they went in at a 75% eFG clip, and Michigan got blown off the court.

I'd rather have one issue that Michigan can mitigate by sending waves of guys back than a big dip in half-court D, so I tentatively suggest this is a hopeful sign.

*[And of course Indiana was crazy efficient in half-court situations in that game. The overall trend is decent—or at least the same—half-court defense, though. Consider it stipulated that if Michigan plays half court D as badly as they did against Indiana, they're dead meat.]



March 13th, 2014 at 12:40 PM ^

I will confess that I have watched way more of last year's tournament on BTN this year than I should have, but in addition to McGary I've noticed how many steals Burke got (and how well he seemed to stay in front of his man) and how well Hardaway (with the exception of defending CJ Fair, an admittedly tough matchup) played defensively, especially in help defense.  I'm definitely not an expert, but I think that missing a third-year player with an NBA body has to hurt, and Burke is stronger than Walton. 



March 13th, 2014 at 12:51 PM ^

Well arent we "Mr Cheerful" on the eve of the B1G tournament.......

FWIW I dont know if I'd describe our team as "dead meat" if we dont play better half court defense but it sure will put a ton of pressure on the offense to deliver.  And the good news is we definitely have the scoring weapons to come out on top in a game like that if need be.

Mr Miggle

March 13th, 2014 at 1:12 PM ^

if this year's defense wasn't worse than last year's. Last year we could bring McGary and LeVert off the bench to provide a defensive spark. We could go bigger if need be. We were better handling the opposing PG.

This season we play Stauskas and LeVert 38 minutes a game with much expanded roles on offense. When we take out Robinson, we get smaller, not bigger. 


March 13th, 2014 at 5:19 PM ^

The reason in the article are great and right on, but I don't think you guys are giving Burke and Hardaway enough defensive credit from last year. Neither one was Aaron Craft or Victor Oladipo by any means, but they were a good defense backcourt. Hardaway was consistently responsible for guarding the opposing teams best player (assuming they were a guard or wing) and typically did a pretty good job slowing them down. The closest thing we have to that this year is Levert and he gets beat off the dribble regularly and also needs to add another 10 - 15 lbs of muscle to become a very good defender. Burke was great at picking someone's pocket and rarely got beat off the dribble.  Also Burke had 13 blocked shots last year. That would put him tied for 2nd with Jordan Morgan on this team. So yes the reasons Brian gave were correct, but you also have to look at our personel. Having 2 strong backcourt defenders go to the NBA is also a BIG reason.