Perimeter Defense

Dylan Burkhardt

Defense is the primary reason that Michigan has exceeded expectations through the first eleven games this season. The Wolverines have demonstrated a newfound tenacity on the defensive end – they currently rank 16th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. It’s tough to measure individual defensive performance with statistics, but early returns point to significant improvement from one position group more than others: the guards.

After watching Oakland’s guards struggle to even make a basket on Saturday, I decided to run the numbers and see how opposing guards have fared versus the Wolverine defense this season. I came up with this table, which includes the field goal percentages and points scored for each starting backcourt that Michigan has faced – the results are impressive.

Team FG% Points Pts/Starter
USC Upstate 12% 11 3.7
Bowling Green 14% 2 1.0
Gardner Webb 25% 17 5.7
Syracuse 29% 17 8.5
UTEP 55% 36 12.0
Clemson 33% 27 9.0
Harvard 38% 27 9.0
Concordia 26% 15 5.0
Utah 33% 19 9.5
NCCU 27% 27 9.0
Oakland 27% 26 8.7
Average 31% 20.4 7.4

Note: Every starting line up listed 2 or 3 guards, so I normalized the numbers into points/starter. Randy Culpepper (UTEP) was included as a starter because he played starter minutes and is a regular UTEP starter that came off the bench for what seemed like disciplinary reasons.

Only one team’s starting guards have shot over 40% from the field against Michigan. Obviously games versus USC Upstate or North Carolina Central aren’t going to prove much, but after 11 games there’s a decent amount of data to work with.

Bacari Alexander has been universally praised for the accelerated growth of Michigan’s freshmen big men, and rightfully so. However, there’s an assistant coach that probably deserves more credit for Michigan’s play on the defensive end: LaVall Jordan. Jordan is just 10 years removed from his playing days as a defensive stopper at Butler, where he notably held Detroit guard Rashad Phillips to 11 points in the MCC Championship game. Phillips shot 27% from the field and scored just half of his season average. While all of Michigan’s new assistants have made a significant impact, it’s safe to say that LaVall Jordan knows a thing or two about defense.

Some might discredit the field goal percentage statistic to an “off shooting night” and that might be the case for any single game, but over the course of a season, field goal percentage allowed is the most important defensive statistic. High pressure defenses that cause truckloads of turnovers can also be effective, but those defenses are inherently vulnerable because they are exposed to easy looks, meaning their opponents hit shots at a higher rate. At the end of the day, there are two keys to defense: force your opponents to take low quality shots and then rebound them when they come off the rim.

You need look no further than an hour north to find an example of this in practice, as Michigan State has founded their defensive identity on these same principles. You will rarely see a Spartan team that forces a lot of turnovers but you will always see them ranked as one of the top defenses in the country.

Defensive rebounding is obviously the second part of this equation, and Michigan continues to excel in this department as well. Michigan is rebounding over 75% of their opponents’ missed shots and their best defensive rebounder is their starting two guard. Zack Novak is rebounding a remarkable 23% of opponents’ misses when he’s on the floor, a mark that ranks fourth in the Big Ten – only topped by Jared Sullinger, Trevor Mbakwe, and Draymond Green.

Through eleven games, the strategy is working. Four of Michigan’s ten Division I opponents have had their worst shooting night of the season versus the Wolverines. Three others have had one of their worst three shooting nights. Only Gardner-Webb had an above average day from the field, mostly because their shooting numbers have been so dreadful all year.

The larger question is whether Michigan’s defense will hold up as they move into conference play. There are plenty of talented guards ahead on the schedule, E’TWaun Moore, Demetri McCamey, Kalin Lucas, Josh Selby and Talor Battle to name a few, and Michigan’s backcourt defense will be tested. Obviously some of these guards will have good days, but if Michigan wants to sustain success in the second half of the season they will need to sustain this defensive focus and execution.

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  • MAS

    Great read.

  • Nick

    the one thing that may be insustainable is opponents FT%, which is sitting at 64% or about 4% below average. I know we don’t foul a lot but opponents have left some points at the line so far and we can’t expect that to continue.

    • Dylan Burkhardt

      Valid point but opponents are 92/145 on FTs, if opponents shot 4% better for the 68.3% NCAA average, that would amount to a little more than 6 more points over 11 games.

  • Nick

    I know the effect is miniscule.. but adding 3 or 4 similarly sized effects equates to a couple points per game, plus i expect to see opponent FT rates rise in conference.
    ….also, even in light of the improved perimeter D, i’ve seen a lot of open 3’s that other teams have missed.

    Usually when ppl ask – ‘is it them missing or something you’re doing on D’ its usually a combination of both. I think Beilein has said as much already this yr. Opponents are only shooting 26.4% on 3’s -good for 8th nationally. I would expect that to rise a couple pct points as well.

  • Deacon Blues


    Good point on the opponents’ shooting. It surely will rise, although I don’t think it’s a fluke that U-M’s perimeter defense has been so good. Those game-by-game numbers Dylan mentioned are quite consistent.

    But most of U-M’s opponents have been mediocre-shooting teams. Only three so far are in the top 150 in 3FG%: Harvard (38), UTEP (82) and UNC Central (144). As U-M starts to see teams that can shoot, the numbers figure to climb.

  • ZRL

    After looking at Kenpom, what’s even more encouraging then the low 3pt% defense is our high 3PA/FGA defense. Opponents take over 38% of their shots against us from deep, one of the highest marks in the country. To me, this signifies that our D is doing an excellent job of keeping the ball out of the paint and forcing teams in to taking guarded perimeter shots.

  • Brian W
  • Birdman

    Please everyone, lets not forget that we have been able to start out these ballgames fairly quick. We have been shooting well at the beginning of most games. For a matter of fact, we have been able to start each half of these ballgames fairly well. Most of these teams are jacking up a lot of threes because they are behind. I hope we can keep up the intensity. I really have not seen us play from behind that much. Which is a very good thing.

  • Brian W

    U-M Women’s team just beat #24 Boston College at Crisler, 68-55. Darius, Tim and others in the house.

  • Tweeter

    is OSU going to run away with the Big Ten? I really thought there would be at least two if not four or five teams that would compete near the top. But after watching these teams, I do not think there is another team in the Big Ten that is even partially close to OSU. MSU, Illinois, Purdue, Wisky and Minnesota are all solid enough, but none of them are at the top level of college basketball right now. Then there is a bunch of muckity muck from 6 to 11. I can really see this conference only getting six bids this year because OSU wins 16 games, the other four listed above all win somewhere between 10 and 12 games, then no other team wins more than 8 games.

    Usually I come into the year thinking that a strong conference is a good thing for overall bids, but it might be a really bad thing this year because there appear to be such distinguished levels between the teams. Though, maybe MSU keeps playing like an average NIT team and misses out on the tourney.

  • ChesterBlue

    Great start to the season. As painful as last season was, this season has been that satisfying. Lets hope Novak, Morgan and the rest can board against Purdue, MSU, Wiskey, OSU and the big ten. And lets also hope our shots are falling. Smotrycz’ development will be a real key from both and offensive and defensive perspective. He could give size on D and create a real tough match-up for our opponents when we have the ball, again because of his size and shot..

  • mgocanada

    Sorry bout the non-sequitur, but it was great to see State get drilled by Texas at the Breslin. (Never been a Longhorn fan — they are generally reprehensible human beings — but this year and next they’re my back-up team owing to the Canucks on the roster). That said, with Mizzou handling Illinois, the “Big Ten as best conference” trope might be fading as fast as Sparty is.

    • JimC

      Non-sequitur non problemo. I came by this morning to gloat as well.

  • ScottGoBlue

    Great analysis. After reading it, it occurred to me that our most-experienced players are all in the backcourt: Morris, Novak, Douglass. Could that be why we’re playing such great D there?

    I think the Purdue game will tell us a lot about where exactly we stack up this year. It’s a home game against a high-quality opponent (that I think we could beat). Also, our conference schedule is favorable. We play all the bottom teams twice: Indiana, Iowa, Penn State. I like this team’s chances of post-season play. But like I said, next Tuesday will be telling.

    Merry Christmas, UMHoops!

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  • Andy

    Very nice read. It’s interesting to see the numbers broken down like that and get a little validation for what we think we’re seeing. One interesting thing to add to the table (I recognize this would take a lot more work) would be to have the opponent’s back court’s average PPG and FG% for the entire season, and then the delta of what they did against Michigan. That would help alleviate (or justify I guess) some of the fear that it’s just because the teams we’re playing are bad.