So, Brandon had asked me to put together a scouting report of Michigan basketball and I have to say as an outside I’m always wildly impressed by John Beilein. Now, that said, this season looked like it was going to be somewhat of a disaster early, only for Beilein to be, well, Beilein.
Since the loss at Ohio State in which Michigan gave up a 20-point lead, the Wolverines have yet to lose, including a road win vs Texas and a come from behind home win over UCLA. Those are the wins that Michigan needed to have on its resume as the Wolverines will likely be compared to these sorts of teams in March – whether it was on the bubble or for a particular seed.
So with that in mind, this is simply a breakdown of what I’ve seen them do and what they’ve been successful at. This obviously has to start on the offensive side of the ball. They are scoring 1.015 points per possession, which grades out as ‘excellent’ per Synergy and in the 93rd percentile nationally. From an efficiency stand point, the Wolverines are 46th in AdjO on KenPom, playing a similar style that we’ve seen. They shoot a bunch of threes, take their time offensively and run the 2-guard offense that Beilein has made famous. Most importantly, Michigan is taking care of the ball ranking 14th in the country with a 15.3% turnover rate.
The two sets that Michigan runs the most and grades out the best at are spot up and transition. They have about 29% of possessions in spot up sets, so we’ll start there. The Wolverines are in the 93rd percentile nationally scoring 1.088 points per possession out of this set. Obviously with the emphasis on shooting threes here, the PPP tends to be higher, that’s always a positive.
What I want to focus on here though is something I noticed in the game against Illinois. First, is how quick the ball moves from one to another. Michigan does an excellent job of essentially playing hot potato, which causes the defense to rotate and get caught out of position. The second thing is the importantce of Mo Wagner in this set. His ability to score in the paint but also to step out and shoot tends to cause confusion to the defense. Watch this possession here, starting with the high ball screen by Wagner. This is right after the screen when he catches the ball. Look at where the defense is already sitting, before the two wings make backdoor cuts. They are already cheating off of shooters and the floor stays spread. That’s vital for Michigan.
After the ball gets whipped around and kicked back out to Simpson, we see a reset. This is where that picture above is important. Almost at the same spot as the start of the possession Wagner comes up to set a high ball screen. This time the defense collapses even more leaving a wide open look for Poole:
Next, you have to focus on Charles Matthews. Coming from Kentucky and getting to spend a year not only practicing in that system and against quality talent, he had a year to learn Beilein’s system. It’s starting to show off as he’s turned into the go-to guy for Michigan as he should be. Part of what makes the 2-guard system so great is Beilein getting an athletic wing that can score in a variety of ways. While it is fair to worry about his free throw shooting, especially because that’s usually a fair assessment on how a player shoots, he’s shooting a respectable 35% from three.
What I would like to see Beilein do a little more of though is put Matthews in the post. He’s done it just 14 times this year, but it’s been wildly successful. He’s scored on nearly 65% of those possessions and it just provides a different look. Think of something like what Villanova is doing inverting its offense with Jalen Brunson in the post and Omari Spellman on the wing. Not saying that’s who these guys are, but you could put Matthews in the post and Wagner out on the wing for a few specific sets.
What makes this look unique is the way that Beilein gets Matthews into the post. He tends to start him opposite wing of where the ball is coming up. The ball is then swung to his side and sometimes even to him. After the ball gets reversed, first to the high post and then opposite wing, there’s a guard on guard backpick. That allows Matthews to dive to the post where he catches the ball on the low block. From there he’s actually shown a variety of moves. I’ve seen him shoot a fadeaway, a one dribble dunk, a half spin and a face up. This is something that Beilein should keep in his back pocket as Matthews will have the athleticism advantage over most wings in the Big 10. This is a play that I keep going back to:
Now, while it’s fun to talk about offense and as you rightfully should with Beilein, it’s the defense this year that is truly special. This is the best defensive team Beilein has had his entire career (in the KenPom era). They currently rank 22nd in AdjD, the highest a Michigan team has finished under Beilein is 37th (happened twice, 2010-11 and 2012-13). They are giving up just .818 points per possession, which ranks in the 89th percentile nationally. When you’re talking about .197 ppp difference between offense and defense that goes a long way throughout the course of the season.
However, what has made this defense so special is the ability to defend in transition. They are the best team in the country in transition defense, giving up just .757 points per possession, which is almost unheard of. Part of it is they are forcing turnovers, even in transition (17% in transition) which allows them to dictate tempo and set offense. What I’ve noticed Michigan likes to do in transition defense, is whoever is first one back immediately sets up in the middle of the lane. They are aware of where the circle is and forces the opponents to make a decision. This leads to multiple charge calls or empty possessions.
The other key stat defensively that I’ve noticed is the minimal amount of three point attempts they give up. To me that’s more important than the percentage of threes a team makes. Michigan is absolutely one of the best teams in the country in taking away the 3-point line. They rank 11th in the country in allowing 3 point attempts per field goal attempts. The reason why I say that is it limits if a team is shooting well one night. Sure, a team may shoot 80% from the 3-point line, but if they only get 10 attempts that’s vastly different.
Ultimately, it’s going to be an interesting year for Michigan. They have played themselves safely into the NCAA Tournament as of today and what seems to be the 3rd, maybe 4th best team in the Big 10. There’s still question marks, whether it comes at the point guard spot or what happens when they play against the teams with athletic bigs that can step out with Wagner no problem. That said this is a team that is starting to figure it out at the right time. They can take advantage of a weaker Big 10 and get a top-7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. We’ve seen what happens if they fall in that spot, all you have to do is look a year back.