By the Numbers: A Closer Look at Michigan’s Turnaround

Dylan Burkhardt
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A little over a month ago, Michigan’s season looked finished. The Wolverines were 11-9 (1-6) and a once promising and encouraging season appeared to be turning into a battle to stay out of the Big Ten basement. Michigan had its work cut out just to put together an NIT-worthy resume. Then Michigan won 7 of its next 10 games with two losses settled by buzzer beaters and another to the nation’s top team. Now Michigan sits at 18-12 (8-9) with opportunity in hand. The Wolverines will host Michigan State on Saturday for what should be the most important game in the in-state rivalry in at least a decade. A win would give Michigan its first sweep of Michigan State since 1997, first Big Ten Tournament bye since 2004 and continue to solidify its improving NCAA Tournament resume.

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How did Michigan turn the season around? A large part of it is undoubtedly psychological. Michigan is playing with more confidence and swagger, playing together when the going gets tough. Michigan has won five road games, a test of mental strength, and battled back from numerous deficits.  That said, the greatest statistical improvement has been on the defensive end of the court. The Wolverine defense was shredded during the first seven Big Ten games, allowing a staggering 1.22 points per possession. In the last 10 games, Michigan has allowed just 1.03 points per trip. In case you are unfamiliar with efficiency margins, this is a radical improvement. Michigan’s worst defensive performance during the last 10 games, 1.14 points allowed per trip, is better than its best, 1.15 allowed per trip, during the first seven.

Michigan’s defensive improvement stems from significantly better field goal percentage defense. The Wolverines rarely block shots but are learning to be more crisp in their defensive rotations and contest shots more effectively. Michigan allowed its first seven Big Ten opponents an average effective field goal percentage over 60% but the next 10 have been held to an average eFG% under 50%. Just one of Michigan’s last 10 opponents have topped an effective field goal percentage of 54%.

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There isn’t quite as much obvious improvement when examining the other three factors. The Wolverines still aren’t forcing many more turnovers and are still average to above average on the defensive glass. The one other area where Michigan has shown improvement is keeping opponents off of the charity stripe. John Beilein’s teams have always been known for doing a handful of notable things: shooting a lot of threes, not turning the ball over, not fouling, and not grabbing many offensive rebounds. This year’s young team really struggled to avoid fouling early on in conference play but has shown steady improvement. This improvement has not only allowed Jordan Morgan to stay out of foul trouble and on the court, it has eliminated all of the free points that Michigan allowed early in conference play (just ask Indiana about fouling).

Michigan’s offense has been effective throughout conference play and is Beilein’s most efficient offense at Michigan. The Wolverines are the second best shooting team in the league, with a 54.4% effective field goal percentage in Big Ten games, and have scored inside (51.7%, 3rd) and out (38.7%, 4th). While the overall offensive production hasn’t shifted much over conference play, one player has emerged as a star: Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway has shifted from a streaky volume shooter to an efficient scorer. Suddenly he’s hitting threes, attacking the basket, dunking in transition, setting up teammates off the pick and roll and even hitting pull-up jumpers. He’s been so efficient that we need not one, but two charts to do him justice.

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Charts from StatSheet.com
Saturday’s game will be a chance to prove to the country that this late season resurgence is legitimate. It was the win in East Lansing that started Michigan’s run and a home win would cap off the regular season in fitting fashion. Complete the sweep of Michigan State on CBS and the nation will take notice. Let another opportunity slip away and the message will be clear: maybe next year.
  • ScottGoBlue

    Great analysis, Dylan. I (we all) really appreciate what you and Joe are doing here at UM Hoops. I’ve been a fan of Michigan basketball since watching them make their 1989 tournament run (aged 9 at the time). I presently live on another continent, so it’s great to be able to follow the team so closely. You guys make that happen.

    This team has improved so much and it’s been fun to watch. These young guys could have easily thrown in the towel mid-season. But right when things looked to worst, they dug down deep and turned it around. I think they’ve fully bought in to what they coaches are teaching them. What a difference that makes (compare last year)! That’s why there’s the improvement in the defense. That’s why Hardaway’s game is more fluid.

    This next game isn’t a gimme. Izzo is still Izzo, the Sparties still live to beat us, and they’re still a bunch of very talented basketball players. I’m hopeful JB can put together a great gameplan with the extra time off this week. Should be a fun one to watch (and even at a reasonable time for me).

    Go Blue!

    • Eric

      Agree completely, I just want to reiterate how great of a job you and Joe do with this site. The great information, analysis, and consistent updates that you guys post throughout the week is just phenomenal. Really appreciate all the time you put in, and have to say the site is superior to MGoBlog, IMO.

      • the_white_tiger

        This site blows MGoBlog out of the water when it comes to basketball at the very least.

        • Chris in NC

          Agreed, but to be fair, MGoBlog is more of an overall Michigan sports blog whereas Dylan is an expert on hoops and focuses exclusively on that. I’d expect his analysis to be the top. In reality his analysis is better than anything I see on ESPN, FoxSports, CBS Sports or any other site that supposedly has experts let alone blogs. He keeps it up, he’ll be on ESPN in Vitale’s seat when old Dicky V retires.

  • Kenny

    I think Morgan’s improvement deserves to be mentioned as well. Not only he learned how not to foul but he has improved on his FT a lot.

  • Jeff

    i’m looking everywhere for tickets for Saturday’s game. Any ideas? I’m a previous season ticket holder. i live in Windsor, ON.

  • Matt

    The hub of stubs. If not, the corner of Main and Stadium on game day.

  • JD

    I love this site, I love the turnaround and enjoyed the article, save one word. “Swagger” (or swag) should be retired. It’s been played to death.

    • Chris

      swagger is a beilein favorite. with all these “inside the locker room” vids on the internet i was able to hear him say swagger a million times. Suprising and awesome to hear

    • Fred_Ex

      JD you stole my name now I have to come up with a new one. What about Fred_Ex

  • AG2

    Howsabout “goin ‘ham”, that seems to be the new lingo these days.

    Check out tonight’s game Colorado @ Iowa State. Colorado’s done with a loss, and the line has moved from pick’em to Iowa State -1.5 today.

  • jmblue

    Very cool to see the improvement quantified. Great work as always!

  • http://umhoops.com KAB

    Man it seem’s like it has been 3 weeks since we played.I hope Saturday comes soon…

  • Mark

    It really is as simple as you left. Win and you prove yourself and lose and you’re out.

  • Fred_Ex

    Yeah this really stinks waiting til Saturday, but it will pribably help come game time.

  • JimC

    KAB & Fred you’re absolutely right!
    The weekdays just get slower & slower!

  • mike

    The bubble keeps getting weaker and weaker. With all these teams losing, I really don’t think we have to do much in the BTT with a win against ST

  • Joel

    My head is going to explode with all the anticipation leading up till Saturday.

  • Ryan

    Is there anywhere to watch the game Saturday if you are out of the regional broadcast? Does CBS broadcast games online like in the tournament?

  • MarcO

    Sorry to go way off-topic but can anyone recommend a local Michigan radio station where I can listen to Michigan radio talk? I downloaded an app for my BB and it has a ton of Michigan stations.

    Is it 1050 WTKA?

    • http://wolverine.com Mich Fan

      wtka.com, yes