After a 20-month absence from college basketball, Micah Potter finally suited up for Wisconsin after transferring from Ohio State. His time with the Buckeyes was mostly uneventful. He was efficient—making 54 percent of his 2s and 33 percent of his 3s in Columbus, all with a low turnover rate. For a center, he was a poor rebounder, however, and his defense was nothing to write home about. Consequently, he was playing fewer than 10 minutes per game toward the end. Ergo, transfer.
Potter is from Mentor, Ohio, a small city on Lake Erie a short drive from Cleveland, and about two and a half hours from Columbus. I don't know if Potter grew up a Buckeye fan, but it's hard to believe he did not. Transferring, therefore, was likely not an easy decision. Complicating things further was that, at the time he announced his transfer to the Badgers, Wisconsin had a sophomore center with a very similar game already playing quite a bit. Two days before the announcement, Nate Reuvers played 29 minutes in an overtime loss to Marquette. And this is while he shared the court with Ethan Happ. Of course, maybe that's what Potter was thinking all along. Reuvers was getting minutes with Happ, surely he would be able to get minutes playing with Reuvers.
Well, he isn't.
Only in one game since he was granted eligibility has Potter played at least 20 minutes. And it's not for lack of production. In conference play, Potter is sporting an otherworldly 63/58/91 slash line. His defensive rebounding rate is over 40. He's protecting the rim with a 7.0% block percentage. His foul rate is that of a point guard's. He's drawing over 6 fouls per 40 minutes.
Of course, many of those numbers are not sustainable. If they were, Micah Potter should play any position he wants for as long as he wants—players shooting with a 70+ effective field goal percentages while attempting over 35 percent of the shots while on the floor exist only in video games. But one would think it's worth finding out exactly where Potter's long-term level of production lies. Certainly, we can conclude he's at least a high-level performer.
So why not play him more? Gard certainly had no issues playing two centers last year. Why not this season? One follower suggested it was his defense:
OK, let's go to the tape. Against Maryland, you're going to see a lot of pick and roll offense. And indeed, that's what Greg Gard said about it after the game:
"We were a little bit better on the ball screen and even we screwed it up late, and that's why I went more with Reuvers than Potter in the second half from a defensive standpoint," Gard said. "He's got more experience in that situation. There were times we didn't jam from the backside and Cowan puts you in a pickle. I mean he's a really good guard that kind of gets you on your heels and do you switch it, do you not switch it? Smith's ability to shoot the three, and then if they roll him and then they're back screening the screener and exiting a shooter out behind it with Wiggins or other guys they had brought off that in the first half.
"Just try to string it out the best you can and if he turns and goes downhill, we just did a good enough job, late we did. Nate tipped one of them and then they threw one off the backboard trying to get the lob in that little pocket that gets created."
OK, let's talk about a few of these things. First off, Wisconsin's "legacy" defense on the pick and roll is the "soft show." It's where the big helps on the ballhandler, but not something that could be considered a hard hedge, or even a hedge. It's to keep the ballhandler from getting to the rim, while still giving yourself an ability to disrupt the roll. Here's an example from Potter:
The ball is thrown off his leg, but ultimately there was just no window for a pass. Now, why don't all teams do this all the time? You have the primary action covered (ballhandler), and the roll! We're done, right?
Well, no. There's the "pop" to consider. If you have a screener that can shoot—and Maryland does—that's what you give up.
Potter was burned by this here, and another time it only appeared he was (but really, it was Brevin Pritzl's bad defense that led to a breakdown). But keep in mind, this isn't his fault—this is the defense! If there was a way to guard ballscreens that allowed a team to guard everything, there would be no ballscreens. Reuvers had a similar play happen to him, but it was a tougher shot mostly because Eric Ayala didn't create much room with a poor drive.
But Maryland stopped going to the pop action late. I suspect Turgeon didn't want to leave the game in the hands of Jalen Smith's three-point shooting. (I mean, I'm just an unfrozen caveman lawyer, but when I see a 6-10 athlete that is shooting 40% on 3s (64% in conference play), I say "let it fly" but that's why I'm not the head coach at Maryland I guess.) Anyways, to that end, Turgeon had to figure out a way to get Smith on the roll despite Wisconsin's big man cutting it off.
This is why I suspect Gard wanted Reuvers in the game. The Terps were backscreening Reuvers, to prevent him from cutting off the pass. And while it doesn't look terribly effective, it was enough to create some traffic.
Smith is one of the best athletes you'll find for his size, and Cowan is a tremendous passer. How do you guard that? Reuvers figured it out soon thereafter, after Smith slips the screen to try and get a head start.
I also suspect Maryland screwed this play up. There's no backscreen this time, and another player not helping the action wanders into the play, bringing a defender with him. Reuvers made a nice aggressive play to get a hand on the ball, but you can't help but notice Maryland's poor execution as well.
Take all of this together, and from the film I saw, it does indeed seem like Nate Reuvers is maybe a step quicker on defense than Micah Potter. He was a little quicker to get back out to his popping man, for instance. But it's nonetheless hard for me to believe that Potter couldn't stand to see a little more of the floor. From my review of the game film, Potter's defense looked fine. He handled his assignments, stayed on switches, and generally didn't lose track of where the offense was. Throw in the rebounding and shotblocking, and it's hard to see him as a liability.
And the offense is really too good to ignore. Figuring out how to get Potter on the floor more is something I'm sure Gard is working on.
The Bill Carmody Award is one of the most selective, if not prestigious awards one can earn. It's "given out" (by moi) to the Big Ten team that sports the conference's best offense and worst defense. As you can imagine, this is a relatively rare event. In fact, Bill Carmody never won it himself, though he came close in 2010. Truthfully, I really want someone to win this damn thing.
Currently, Michigan is scoring 1.07 PPP in conference play (2nd), and allowing a league-worst 1.12 PPP. Juwan Howard would make a stunning entrance were he to finally achieve what most scientists have believed to be impossible.
A lot has been said about Brad Underwood changing his defense this season. Apparently it was an "analytics kid" who "worked for the Celtics" and is a friend of Tyler Underwood's. If you're out there, mystery analytics kid, drop a line.
But might it be time for Brad Underwood to also change the offense? Jordan Sperber had an excellent overview of the spread offense, its pros, its cons, and how it fares out in the wild, currently:
The TL;DR is that it might be time for Underwood to retire his offense, or at least put it on hiatus. Defenses ultimately just concede long 2s from the pinch post, which is a great decision if that means it's Kofi Cockburn shooting jumpshots. The numbers this season are ugly—the Illini are scoring just 0.95 PPP in conference play. Just putting an average offense on the floor—which should not be too difficult, given the talent on the roster—would make Illinois instantly one of the top 2-3 teams in the league this season.
Indeed, as Sperber notes, the Illini really aren't running the spread anymore. So if they aren't running the spread, what are they running?
Stuff like this:
It's simple ball screen-replace. It doesn't draw enough attention from the wing defenders, so those shooters aren't open. Wisconsin's soft show takes away the drive and the roll, and the replace action actually eliminates the pop potential for the big man.
Here you don't have the replace action, but no matter, Illinois just executes poorly. Bezhanishvili is actually open on the roll, but Damonte Williams picks up his dribble early and doesn't look his way anyways. And really, is Damonte Williams the guy you want running this play? He's attempted just two 2-pointers in conference play, making one. He's 0-9 on 3s. The defense doesn't have to guard him.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time breaking down what was likely a hastily-installed offense. But Illinois has a week to prepare for its next game—Northwestern at home—which is one of the rare games a Big Ten team can get away with playing a bit sloppy. My hunch is we'll see this ball screen offense tweaked further.
Or hey, maybe Underwood sticks with spread and Tyler will have to call up his friend again.