Michigan, a team coached by John Beilein, has the 6th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country this season. The previous high for the Michigan coach, at the power conference level, was 37th. That's 15 seasons' worth of mediocrity on the defensive end. This is what an outlier looks like:
I am going to be honest: I did not want to write this post. I thought I was going to get out of it, as Michigan ended up ranking a ho-hum 6th in defensive efficiency in conference play. Nothing to see here! But after the run in the Big Ten Tournament, holding every opponent to under a point per possession, save Purdue (the best offense in the Big Ten, which Michigan held to 0.13 below its conference average), I cannot in good conscience ignore this story any longer.
I really wanted to, though. Nothing against Michigan, but I'm not a fan of outliers, particularly where they represent a complete about-face of 15 years' worth of solid data. John Beilein has been a collegiate head coach for 40 years in a row. It's hard for me to swallow the idea that, in year 39 (more on that), he thinks ya know, I've made like $50M in this business by doing things my way, and I have a pretty nice contract right now, but let's change all that!
That's just a difficult premise for me to swallow. Yes, there are malleable coaches out there—for all the talk of systems, I maintain that Bo Ryan was as flexible as they came—but here we had 15 years of good, solid data that told us that when it came to the defensive side of the ball, Beilein just didn't care. Oh sure, he might say that defense is a real point of emphasis during those hopeful October media days, but by mid-February we can see for ourselves that, once again, October talk is not to be trusted.
And frankly, there are few things I enjoy more than pointing out that October talk is BS. Fran McCaffrey told us to expect Tyler Cook to block some shots and show off some outside shooting (nope.). Brad Underwood compared Mark Smith to Jason Kidd. Pat Chambers talked up big man transfer Satchel Pierce, claiming he was going to "add a dimension." I guess that dimension was a glass case labeled BREAK GLASS IN EVENT OF ISAAC HAAS.
I wish I could say taking the air out of October Talk got old, but if I'm being honest, it has not yet. So when Billy Donlon's season came and went without much to show on the defensive end, I was more than happy to spike the football on that October Talk as well. The Wolverines actually got worse year-over-year defensively, sinking to 11th in the conference in Big Ten play.
But something changed. I just didn't see it.
For the first time in the Kenpom Era, a John Beilein-coached team ranked in the top-10 in percentage of opponent shots that were three-point attempts (meaning, opponents suddenly shot fewer 3s). Even the most casual observer of basketball these days has come to realize the three-point line's growing importance. It used to be there was just a shooter or two on the other team to account for. The 2005 Illini, for instance, were a revelation in large part because they had the audacity to play three guards that could hurt you from behind the arc. Ten years later, and every single starter for the Wisconsin Badgers attempted at least 100 three point attempts. In 2002, no power conference team attempted more 3s as a share of its attempts (43.7 percent) than the Nebraska Cornhuskers (coached by Barry Collier, the guy who later had the bright idea to give some kid named Brad Stevens a head coaching job). That same mark would rank 50th this season.
Beilein is no stranger to this, of course. His teams have been chucking 3s for as long as anyone can remember. The 4 out, 1 in offense he runs creates high two-point percentages and low turnover rates, at the expense of rebounding and free throw attempts. The trade has been well worth the cost, as ranking near the top nationally in adjusted efficiency is old hat for Beilein.
But until last year, it doesn't appear that approach to the game made its way to the other side of the ball. I do not know if credit belongs to Donlon or someone else, but last year the Wolverines ranked 9th in the country in defensive 3PA%. This year they're 10th. This is against a history of ranking in the high 100s and low 200s for the years prior. Something definitely changed. It did not matter much to the bottom line last year, because
- Teams were making a lot of the 3-pointers they attempted (37.8, which could easily be waved away as bad luck);
- Michigan was abysmal on the defensive glass; and
- Michigan was abysmal at defending 2s.
All of those have changed this season, and the result is the 6th-best defensive efficiency in the country, and a team that, yes, should be considered a real Final Four contender.
Schematically, we know that Michigan has all but abandoned the 1-3-1 that was a staple in Beilein's early career. Beyond that, the Wolverines have the luxury of length and athleticism at the 2-4 spots, all of whom are coached to go over the top of screens and close out hard. An example against Purdue, an offense that usually consists of a center and four excellent outside shooters:
"Going over the top of screens" is of course, easier said than done, particularly when the screeners are as large as Purdue's are. Despite what Maverick Morgan might think, this is a blue collar team:
Michigan was doing all of this last year, but the overall numbers were poor. Several things have changed, as mentioned above, and I think the inputs are a collection of things. Duncan Robinson is massively improved as a defender. Charles Matthews provides length, athleticism, rebounding, and a high basketball IQ to anticipate plays. Zavier Simpson is excellent on the ball. And Jon Teske has arrived.
The last part of that might be the most significant because, if there's one place where it's generally safe to attack the Wolverines, it's when #13 is in the game:
This is a spectacular battle of two defensively-challenged 5s. Haas gives up wide open 3s, Wagner allows a layup on a post-up that starts in the corner. pic.twitter.com/uWxsOznH8x— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) March 4, 2018
Wagner does not possess quick feet to guard in space, and he's not strong enough to defend a true 5 in the post. It will be interesting to see how the next level treats him because, while he's an extraordinary offensive talent, he clearly has defensive limitations.
But that's where Teske comes in. The freshman has been quite good on defense.
I'm not quite ready to make him a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (overall, Synergy puts him in the 59th percentile of defenders on an individual PPP basis), but let's just say I will watch his career with great interest.
OK, one last clip:
If you can combine 3-point paucity with sound interior defense, you're cooking with gas. Obviously, Michigan is a force to be reckoned with this season. Beyond that, I do not think you'll see Beilein move off his preference for no more than one small guard in the lineup anytime soon. Also, a player like Matthews, who provides excellent rebounding and can defend a number of positions, solves a lot of problems on his own. I'll be curious to see how Beilein fills his role, when the time comes.
Regardless, now that Beilein has a taste of the highs of good defense, I'm not sure he'll ever go back.