Is Michigan Slipping?

One of the biggest stories over the past season and a half has been Michigan's defense. For nearly a decade under John Beilein, the Wolverines oscillated from merely mediocre to horrific. The good news is that the offense was so good, the ineptitude on the other end of the floor did not prevent some very good seasons, including a trip to the Final Four.

That all changed last season, and many point to the addition of Luke Yaklich as the primary reason why.

(OK, you need to stop right here and read that piece, because the casual amount of "wait...what?" lines is stunning. E.g., "at Joliet West High School in Chicago," or that the weird part about Yaklich's interview was that he wore a suit and tie, not that it was located in an airport lounge. OK, back to the post.)

Yaklich has indeed brought about changes to Michigan's defense, but as any good coach will tell you, no scheme can overcome players that are overmatched or that cannot execute. For this reason, simplicity carries a premium. The scouting report will have wrinkles unique to the opponent, but overloading the team with information and audibles risks mistakes and hesitation. And Michigan has a combination of a simple "base" scheme and players that can run it well.

Unless it's a gimmicky defense, or simply a zone, a good starting point for evaluating what a scheme values is how it defends the ball screen. A couple decades ago, ball screens were infrequent and largely ineffective. Even when there was a ball screen, the screener went into spectator mode. No wonder no one ran it, because the result of the action was two guys guarding the ball instead of one, and the offense never punished the defense for that.

This was what offense looked like back then (from the 1993 title game). Michigan's offensive gameplan in this game was to get the ball to Chris Webber on the block, and Plan B was a lot of midrange jumpshots. North Carolina's defense was predictably to pack the paint. Five (!) defenders in the paint on this play, which ends in a contested midrange shot.

Now, the ball screen is a weapon, in large part because 4s and 5s are skilled at rolling to the hoop and making long range shots. We all marveled at Frank Kaminsky making so many three-pointers, but now no one bats an eye at the fact that Indiana's starting center is one of the best three-point shooters in the conference. Because of this, the ball screen is everywhere, and how defenses defend it goes a long way in how effective defenses are.

Here's Michigan's approach. Generally, Michigan executes a hard hedge (but not so hard the center is haranguing the ballhandler 40 feet from the hoop). That means the screener-defender (the big man) goes over the top of the screen, to cut off dribble penetration. Meanwhile, the screened defender "chases" the ballhandler, so he can't shoot from behind the screen. The ballhandler's only play here is to pass.

That's where the fun begins, as Michigan rotates to cover the screener. No pop, no roll. This is where you have to beat Michigan. Because the defense has two guys guarding one ballhandler, there must be a 2-on-1 for the offense somewhere. There is, it's just far away from the ball, so by the time any pass has been made, the defense has had time to recover. Also, good luck executing that pass.

If you're going to beat Michigan on the ball screen, it's on the screener-rotation action. And we might be seeing some weaknesses of Michigan's vaunted defense heading into conference play. Each of the past four opponents of Michigan (Northwestern, South Carolina, Western Michigan, Air Force) shot 50 percent or better on their 2s against UM. Of those, only Air Force can claim excellence in the two-point making department, so there may be something there other than a simple regression to the mean.

How did it happen? Well, a combination of scheme, breakdowns, and mismatches.

Scheme

In order for the rotating defender to commit to the screener without penalty, he needs another defender to play "free safety" on that side of the floor. But the offense can take this away, either by simply only putting one player on that side of the floor, or having the screener screen again. Or, both, as shown here:

I really like this action because there's not a lot Michigan can do here, and frankly, Western Michigan had more options than the pretty good one it took. So, put "weak side ballscreens" on the list of things we might see more opponents try. But even a strong side ballscreen in the right place can cause some misplays. Here, Simpson should be rotating to the screener, and leaving Livers to play free safety on the two remaining players on that side of the floor. But Simpson hesitates—maybe he doesn't want to guard a big man—which puts Austin Davis in an unenviable position of having to close hard from the ball side, and not let his man drive on him as well.

Up next is how teams can punish the screener-defender for hedging too hard and too early. Predictably, it's the backcutting Air Force:

via Gfycat

The simplicity of this is the attractive part. If the defender gets on the outside shoulder of the screener, simply slip to the hoop. Another page for the playbook.

Breakdowns

A lot of Michigan's breakdowns center around Jon Teske. I don't mean that in a negative way. Rather, when he's out of the game, there are a lot of breakdowns at the 5. Austin Davis has his share, but this also happens when Michigan goes small and puts Livers at the 5.

Getting Teske out of the game not only means removing Michigan's shotblocker, but it also means removing its most proficient helper and hedger. But that's easier said than done. For the number of shots he challenges, and considering that he's running around the perimeter helping on ball screens, Teske's 3.5 fouls per 40 minutes is impressive. The only real weakness I've seen from him on film is, well, that's in the next section.

Mismatches

Teske is a great defender, but not unbeatable. If you get him in space against a big man that can drive, he can lose positioning.

via Gfycat

The good news is that very few teams feature a 5-man that can shoot, dribble, screen, and finish through contact. Teske can play off Ethan Happ and Nick Ward from long range. He can close hard on Kaleb Wesson, because those 270 pounds will probably run something over en route to the hoop. Juwan Morgan might be the toughest matchup on paper, but his relative lack of length probably means he can't finish where Teske can recover to challenge the shot.

via Gfycat

Finally, the last mismatch I'll point out is Zavier Simpson. A great ballhawk on the perimeter, Western Michigan was able to pick on him a bit in the post.

There were a couple of possessions like this, so I anticipate teams might try and isolate bigger guards on Simpson.

So, that's what I have. Mind you, I do not think any of this is "easy," but that's the reality of Michigan's defense these days. It can be beat, but it ain't easy.