Five Thoughts on Michigan’s Defense

Dylan Burkhardt

With so many questions surrounding Michigan’s ability to replace the production of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims on the offensive end, there has been very little talk about the defensive end of the floor. With one relatively meaningless cupcake game under our belts, here are five thoughts about Michigan’s defense before we make it further into the non-conference season.

1. Michigan’s defense has improved every year under John Beilein

Despite the confounding results on the court, on a per possession basis, Michigan’s defense has improved every year that John Beilein has been in Ann Arbor. The numbers don’t lie:

PPP Def Rank 2008 2009 2010
Big Ten Rank 9 6 6
National Rank 80 67 53

Despite Michigan’s improvement, they continue to lag far behind the top dogs of the conference. Last season Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan State gave up anywhere from .04 to .07 points per possession less than Michigan — a pretty wide margin. Michigan is stuck in that middle ground where their defense is better than other teams in the middle to bottom half of the conference but is far behind the elite defensive teams of the league.

It will be interesting to see whether Michigan’s defense can continue improve but, with so many freshman in the mix, it will be a struggle.

2. Will we see more 1-3-1 zone?

Beilein’s West Virginia teams were widely known for the 1-3-1 defense that they used consistently after made field goals, however in recent years Beilein’s teams have used the zone sparingly — even making a point to abandon it late last season.

We have seen very little of the 1-3-1 so far this year, as it’s still being implemented, but it looks like the roster is beginning to have the personnel to run more of it. A potential lineup of Darius Morris, Zack Novak, Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz, and Blake McLimans provides the length that makes the zone dangerous. Smotrycz gives you a 6-foot-9 guy on the wing (even with his below average wingspan) joined by Hardaway, who looks to be pushing 6-foot-6. Morris is a good fit to run the baseline because he has decent size at 6-foot-4 and is quick enough to run sideline to sideline. Novak might not be quite as long or athletic as you would want to play the top of the zone, but he has had some success there (notably versus Duke during his freshman year). In the middle, McLimans is intriguing with his length and shot blocking ability.

The problem with the 1-3-1, as we’ve learned over the last several years, is that it’s very unstable. Sometimes it works perfectly and others, for sometimes inexplicable reason, it doesn’t work at all. The biggest worry with so many underclassmen is that little mistakes are critical and almost always lead to easy layups or wide open threes.

3. Defensive Rebounding is the Key

In Big Ten play last year, Michigan rebounded 65.8% of their opponents’ misses, the third worst defensive rebounding percentage in the conference. The year before, they pulled down 71% of their opponents’ misses which was the third best defensive rebounding percentage in the conference. It’s safe to venture a guess that if Michigan would have done a better job on the defensive glass last year, they could have won a couple more Big Ten games last season.

Early returns point to Jordan Morgan being a strong defensive rebounder but there’s no doubt that Michigan is going to need a team effort on the defensive glass. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims were both very good defensive rebounders, pulling down 44% of Michigan’s defensive rebounds last season, and their production will be missed. Colton Christian is extremely raw but looks to be one of the best defensive rebounders on the team. Michigan is also going to need players like Zack Novak and Tim Hardaway to be above average defensive rebounders at their respective positions.

4. Will the New Assistant Coaches Have an Impact?

Lavall Jordan, Bacari Alexander, and Jeff Meyer all have preached improvement on the defensive end. John Beilein echoes their sentiments and, despite a reputation as a coach that runs things from top to bottom, appears ready to hand over some defensive responsibilities to his new assistant coaches.

“It’s going to be really difficult and a challenge for us everyday to continue to play defense so that we can rebound and then score points. … We think we’ve really stepped up with playing defense. (Assistant coaches LaVall Jordan, Bacari Alexander and Jeff Meyer) have done a great job improving what we do defensively.”

Bacari will work mainly with the post players — Jordan Morgan, Blake McLimans, and Jon Horford — and see if he can turn them into Big Ten caliber defenders. Two point field goal percentage defense has been one of the main weaknesses of the Michigan defense, so Alexander certainly has his work cut out for him. Beilein defenses are typically trademarked by the few blocked shots, few free throws model, and it will be interesting to see if we see a shift in that department.

Lavall Jordan will be staffed with improving the backcourt, where he’ll have an interesting set of pieces to work with. Morris has the tools to be a good defender but has yet to show consistency. Douglass has shown flashes, playing very good off the ball defense at times. Novak probably has less than ideal athleticism to defend the two position but has a knack for the ball. It will obviously be tough to judge the direct impact the assistant coaches have on the final result. However, it’s encouraging to see that the emphasis will be there.

5. How important are forced turnovers?

John Beilein’s West Virginia teams always did a tremendous job at forcing turnovers on the defensive end. Beilein’s first two teams in Ann Arbor (2008 and 2009) both were in the middle of the road in terms of forcing turnovers. Last year’s squad was significantly above average, turning opponents over on 23.1% of their possessions, and ranking 36th nationally in forced turnovers. Michigan continued to be impressive in this regard throughout conference play, turning opponents over on a conference best 21.9% of their possessions. Michigan’s lackluster results seem to infer that turnovers might not be the end all be all of good defense.

On the other hand, a majority of Michigan’s wins — 10 out of 15 — occurred when the Wolverines forced their opponents to turn the ball over on more than 23.5% of their possessions. Those wins weren’t all against cupcakes either, that group includes five of Michigan’s seven Big Ten wins. When Michigan turned their opponents over on fewer than 23.5% of their possessions, they were a mere 5-11.

The answer probably lies in the middle somewhere. Turnovers are important, they are essentially free possessions. However I don’t think they are necessarily a presage of defensive success.

  • AG2

    I think it has to do with the fact that last year when we weren’t forcing turnovers we were giving up made baskets and offensive rebounds.

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      Yeah, with the turnovers that was kind of my point. I think rebounding and field goal defense (naturally) is much more important.

  • Phil

    So are there any late bloomers out there for the 2011 class? I haven’t really heard of any names.

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      Haven’t heard much in the way of names lately. Katenda is out there but I think he’s fallen off the radar a bit with his move to Kansas.

      We will let you know if we can dig anything up.

  • JimC

    Nice post Dylan, and looking forward to the BGSU preview!

  • Dylan, I must have missed some news on Katenda. Could you elaborate on his “move to Iowa”?

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      Should have said Kansas actually. He’s going to a prep school there. If you dig up his Rivals/Scout profiles there should be a link to recent articles.

  • Dylan Burkhardt

    Amir Williams committed to Ohio State.

  • Deacon Blues

    Excellent stuff. Was just thinking about this subject the other day.

    Here are Beilein’s national rankings in offensive efficiency at WVU and U-M:
    –139th, 82nd, 18th, 12th, 13th, 148th, 44th, 94th

    And here are the defensive numbers:
    –115th, 89th, 78th, 53rd, 57th, 80th, 67th, 53rd

    The takeaway: While can reasonably expect our offense to significantly improve (in a year or two), I’m not sure the same can be said on defense. Beilein has put together some elite offenses, but the defenses–while okay-to-solid–have never approached that level.

    The wild card is that, as Dylan mentioned, we weren’t really a 1-3-1 team last season. If Beilein continues along this path, playing more man than he has traditionally, then perhaps his history is less relevant.

  • AG2

    Do you suppose the winner of last night’s game had an affect on where Amir went?

    Frankly, I’m disgusted. I’m not going to go any deeper into it than that. Let us never speak his name again.

  • YpsiTuckyBoy

    OSU is just ridiculous when it comes to recruiting. Their class was absolutely loaded this year, and it looks like they’re on the same path for next year.

    • GregGoBlue

      Pretty easy to sell a school with ridiculous athletics where you don’t have to go to class :)

  • Mass

    the only reason that elite players do not commit to UM is that UM basketball is just bad. whether you like it or not, elite players look at their future pro career more than education they get at UofM. Look at the record, coach B is not sending anyone to NBA.

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      #6 for the Cavs didn’t play for Beilein?

      • Mass

        Yes, he did, but that is over how many years of coaching? and he was not drafted. How many players went to NBA in the last 5 years at OSU? I do not mean that Thad is a better coach, but if I was a player, I definitely would take note the difference in number of players in NBA under each coach.

        • Beast1530

          JB was only in Michigan for 3 years to say that JB doesn’t send players to the NBA is absurd.

          • Mass

            how many players he sent to NBA in WVU? It is absurd not to acknowledge the fact coach B is not known to develop NBA talent. This fact may has nothing to do with his coaching ability, but as a recruiter, he is not on par with elite coaches. To be succesful, he needs to bring in top 25 or top 50 players mixed with what he gets now. Look at the rosters of State, how many players on the current UM roster can start for State? 0!

    • JBlair52

      Wasnt Alexander a lottery pick?

      • Beast1530

        Again Mass, JB has been at WVU for 5 years. He made WVU relevant which is saying a lot because WVU isn’t known for the basketball program. Recruiting is hard when you’re in WVU. He recruited Joe Alexander and DaSean Butler and both were drafted in the NBA. To be able to get 2 NBA caliber players in 5 short years especially when you consider the recent history of WVU basketball. It’s impressive.

        In conclusion, you’re statement is still absurd and unrealistic. JB is starting to bring in better recruiting classes. He got top 100 players in Smotrycz, Brundidige, Burke, and Hardaway. That’s a nice haul for JB.

        Getting a top 25/50 players is nearly impossible considering that you pretty much need to pay them to come to school. Basketball recruiting is dirty and JB is a very clean coach who doesn’t play that kind of game.

        • Mass

          Recruiting is not as clean as you would like, but it is absurd that JB cant recuit cleanly, as coach K, Izzo and other show that you can recriut without compromising your principle. As for Butler and Alexander, their development should probably attibuted more to Higgins than JB. JB has been in the coaching circle long enough, and he has not shown that he can consistently develop NBA level players. Yes he got some top 100 players in Smot etc. how many of then do you expect will be drafted? 0 sound familiar. Whether JB is a good coach is not the point of debate, my point is that he cant recruit elite players. If you are contend with finishing consitently in the mid pack of big10 and occasionally making some noise in NCAA, then he is more than fine. He will run a clean program. But if you want compete with elite programs, he is not the coach for that. Beast1530, you are delusional to think JB will take this program to an elite level.

          • Beast1530

            Regardless of development, JB has shown that he can recruit NBA caliber player. I never said that JB would take this program to an elite level. That’s not what we’re arguing about. We’re arguing about JB’s ability to recruit NBA caliber players. JB has shown that he can do that.

            I wouldn’t say that Coach K, Tom Izzo and other coaches are completely clean. To say that they’re a clean program is naive.

  • Kevin in GR

    On a separate note……..I’d seen a little bit of a couple Illinois games and didn’t recall seeing Alex Legion……..when I went to see their roster, I saw he wasn’t on it! Then I found out that he is transferring…………..again to FIU! So the moral of the story is………sometimes when a kid picks a school other than UM, it’s not such a bad thing!

  • Such analysis lends credence to my thesis that Beilein can considerably raise the quality of M’s play. . . only to leave us a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. The retort will be that we’ve got promising players coming, which is true. . . but according to the analysts our recruiting is. . . about middle-of-the-pack.

    It’s a conundrum; I’m convinced Beilein’s a good coach. And I don’t think you would fire somebody because he didn’t bring in the very top players. Someone above mentioned that Matta may have advantages over us. Is the deck just stacked against Michigan at this stage? Are we now looking at two years to a nice crisp-passing, high percentage middle-of-the-pack squad? Should we just be happy to have fun teams with kids who graduate? Are we just one breakthrough kid away from parity or–looking at OSU and MSU–actually three or four kids (too far) away?

  • C weezy

    I agree w/ Beast1530 100%. Coach B has this program definiteley going in the right direction, besides think about it how many years will Sullinger be there ?? I rather have nice average recruits who will be there and learn the system and thrive around other players, then to have a one and done…

  • AG2

    I don’t understand what makes people like Ekpe Udoh and “the Buckeye” believe that Michigan can’t get them into the NBA? You’d think big men would love the chance to show off their skills in a half-court set offense rather than just their run/jump/dunk ability.

  • Mattski: Good analysis. I too believe Beilein is going in the right direction, but recruiting must be on par with the top three programs in the Big Ten. Right now it is not. To answer your question, I don’t think we are 3 or 4 kids away, but maybe just one ot two.

    Beilein needs to get that one Top 20 kid in the nation who can create their own shot, top scorer and will play in the NBA.

  • Polisci

    I’d like to get the best recruits we can too. But if you look back at recruiting classes from 2005-10 we aren’t that far off. Wisconsin had 9 four star or better guys, Purdue had 7, and we had 6. This is based on Scout ratings and for comparison State had 16. We had the first Beilein year which was a late start for him and can account for us not having at least one more guy to match Purdue.

    I think that Beilein is already recruiting at a level to compete for a Big Ten title in the future. A national title will probably require getting a bit more.

  • Champswest

    I would not want a program like OSU where guys show up for 1 or 2 years and then leave for the NBA, I don’t care how good the teams are or how much they win. I prefer to see guys coming here for 3 or 4 years (or more) and win.

  • Don’t think that the recruiting is quite as stellar as Polisci asserts, at least not according to the experts, who recently placed M fourth or fifth among B10 teams. In fact, that’s where PoliSci’s own assessment puts us. Brundidge and Burke move us closer to the top, with a lot hanging on whether we can pull an explosive big man in the 2011 class.

    I don’t want a team with a bunch of one-and-dones, either. Not only would I be ashamed for Michigan but it would undercut one real, long-term advantage that we have: offering a great education to serious-minded kids, the kind who will stay for four years (probably why we’re getting some kids with pedigree).

    The real lesson–maybe–is that Beilein has a hard job, given the current state of college ball and the B10. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, patience is really what is called for. If you had told me that after three years we would still need three-four years to see what Beilein is capable of, I’d have said you were crazy. But that may be the case. If he succeeds it will be a big win for the good guys, IMO.

  • Jeff

    I’ll weigh in on the recruiting issue. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Beilein to compete with MSU and OSU in terms of recruiting or for UofM to win a B10 title any time soon. For me, the goal under Beilein is to get back to the NCAAs on a semi-regular basis. The other advantage with Beilein is that he has dramatically overperformed relative to seeding in nearly every tournament he’s gotten to. Expecting him to get UofM to the top of the B10 just isn’t realistic, IMO.

  • Mass

    What do you say to a coach who can only get his team to NACC on a semi-regular basis, but not on top of the Big10? I am happy you are the coach of UofM? How many years he needs to put this program back to the top of big 10?

    • Beast1530

      If you can recruit dirty like Coach Cal, Pearl, you can get to the top in one year. If you recruit cleanly like JB, it will take longer to get to the top which is about 4-5 years. Basketball recruiting is very corrupt especially when you’re trying to land top 25 type players.