A Closer Look at Michigan’s Three Point Problems

Dylan Burkhardt

John Beilein’s career has been defined by the three point shot. His teams have always been known for a high volume of three point attempts but this Michigan team’s Achilles’ heel, on both ends of the floor, has been the three point shot.

In Big Ten play, Michigan has attempted 44.1% of its field goals from three point range. That’s a higher proportion of three point attempts than any other Big Ten school despite connecting on just 29.5% of those long range attempts, third worst in the conference. John Beilein has repeatedly mentioned that the Wolverines just finished playing five games in 13 days, a stretch that he says is comparable to a typical NBA schedule, and that more regular rest could help his slumping shooters.

A closer look at the individual numbers show that there are plenty of struggles to go around. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s slump is the most pronounced, 8-of-42, but Stu Douglass is the only person that’s really shooting the ball well with significant attempts. Burke, Novak, and Smotrycz are all well below their season averages through seven league games:

Name 3FGM 3FGA 3FG%
Stu Douglass 12 28 42.9%
Matt Vogrich 3 8 37.5%
Trey Burke 10 30 33.3%
Zack Novak 10 31 32.3%
Blake McLimans 1 4 25.0%
Evan Smotrycz 5 23 21.7%
Tim Hardaway Jr 8 42 19.0%

The three point shot is a staple of Michigan’s offense and it’s unlikely that it will change anytime soon. However, Michigan’s struggles to defend the three point shot might be an even greater red flag. Through seven Big Ten games, Michigan has the conference’s worst three point defense and is allowing opponents to make 41.9% on three point attempts. Michigan has faced an array of different three point shooting abilities, its seven conference opponents rank 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th in terms of Big Ten perimeter shooting percentages. Five of those opponents have shot over 40% from three point range and just one, Penn State, has been held under 35% on three point attempts. There are a couple things to digest when trying to get a handle on the Wolverines struggles defending the three.

Michigan State was 7-of-15 on three point attempts at Crisler Arena on Tuesday night and a couple themes emerge when watching all seven makes. Here’s the back-to-back footage of every make:

Two of the makes were against zone – 1-3-1 (#1) in one instance and some sort of 2-3 match-up in another (#3) – but the other makes all stem from Michigan’s collapsing defense either off of penetration (#4) in transition (#2, #5, #6) or from the post (#7). In all of the clips, Michigan’s defense is much more worried about providing help defense than the three point shot. The Wolverines actually have five players in or on the edge of the paint when the ball is kicked out in most clips.

Because of its personnel, Michigan needs to overplay the interior. The Wolverines rank second to last in the Big Ten in Ken Pomeroy’s effective height metric and last in percentage of shots blocked. Despite those limitations, Michigan’s defense is still fourth best in the league at defending the two point shot, 45.8% allowed, and is the best defense at keeping opponents off of the free throw line. Michigan is taking away clean looks from in close and forcing turnovers by playing aggressive defense around the hoop.

Jordan Morgan isn’t going to block Adreian Payne or Meyers Leonard’s shots when they get the ball on the low block in one-on-one situations. He’s not that sort of athlete and he’s giving up three or four inches in height. Instead, Michigan is forced to throw an array of double team looks from different directions to try and force opposing big men into uncomfortable situations. The numbers say that this has worked pretty well, but when opposing offenses find their shots, they have been effective.

Double teams weren’t the only culprit versus Michigan State. Most of the Spartans best looks were because of Michigan’s dramatic over helping to penetration. The strategic thinking here is relatively strong. Would you rather let Keith Appling get easy looks or make Austin Thornton and Brandan Kearney beat you with threes? Michigan State made 48.5% of its twos, under its season average, and I would venture a guess that a number of those were off of put-backs.

Regardless of the causes, Michigan’s three point struggles have been costly. Michigan attempts 44.1% of its field goals from three point range while its Big Ten opponents attempt just 29.7% of their shots from outside. Despite that nearly 15% difference, Michigan is scoring just 32.9% of its points from long range while its opponents are just 1.5% behind at 31.4%. It’s taking the Wolverines significantly more effort and concentration to score nearly an equal number of points from long distance. Another metric to examine this concept is to look at how many points Michigan and its Big Ten opponents are scoring per three point attempt. Currently, Michigan is netting just .89 points per three point attempt and is surrendering 1.26 points per three point attempt.

The numbers say that Michigan should shoot fewer threes and its opponents should attempt significantly more long range efforts. Obviously there’s some regression toward the mean involved – Michigan’s three numbers are lower because they attempt more, etc. – but the Wolverines need to improve their three point statistics on both sides of the ball to sustain success.

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  • Mattski

    Saw where you were headed immediately with defending the three–M’s lack of height means everyone needs to sag to the interior. Sort of ironic that Beilein says “let’s make them beat us with the long ball and defend the high-percentage shot” when we rely on the 3, but okay! Against a really tall and coordinated team we get killed anyway, but there aren’t that many of those.

    You were noting, Dylan, that M was really hitting the twos this year, and to great effect; maybe Michigan can put more emphasis there heading down the road. I do think that we miss Darius where the threes are concerned, especially–maybe–where Hardaway is concerned: timing, placement, all that stuff may be a little off. But although he’ll never see over Ds like Darius did, we’ll continue to see Burke improve there, too.

    • And I should add that as a whole.. Michigan’s defense has been pretty solid. Fourth best in the Big Ten so far, so some parts of the strategy are working out to an extent. 

      I’m also not sure how much of our high 2-pt shooting is a product of the number of threes and relative lack of twos that we shoot as well. If we are forcing interior looks instead of three point looks I assume those numbers would tumble down as well.

      • Tom_McC

        Here is the way I look at it…defensively it really boils down to the gameplan. At this level, you can’t take EVERYTHING away so it becomes a pick your poison deal.  I think UM is better suited to protect the interior more and be willing to give up the occasional open 3.  So maybe the defensive 3 numbers aren’t ideal, I think given the alternative, JB and the staff is fine with it.  That isn’t to say they can’t try and improve the 3 pt defense…I think they will continue to address it.

        On offense, it’s about the players trusting the offense and not getting impatient. I’d say 25-30% of Tim’s 3’s are a result of him getting impatient. It is a fine line for JB because he wants to trust Tim and give him freedom but at the same time if Tim isn’t acting responsibly, it puts JB in a tough spot because you don’t want Tim to start over thinking things.

        I think with more practice time, they can iron some of this stuff out.  With the schedule the way it has been, I’m sure the coaches haven’t had as much opportunity to fine tune things on offense and defense…they’ve been focused more on team specific game plans.  I think as the schedule normalizes going forward the details will start to improve.

  • UM Hoops Fan

    JB seems to like playing percentages.  On offense we try to generate excellent two-point shots – lay-ups or short jumpers – but if can’t get those we will hoist 3s because if the 5 of success is lower we might as well get a slighlty lower % of 3 pts.  We do have set plays for 3s too of course.  

    On the flipside, Austin Thornton and Brandon Kearney had totalled 10 3s for the year prior to our game, and anytime they shoot that’s not an open lay-up is a decent result against MSU.  However, I do think we over-help sometimes.  It’s a tough line to draw, and doubling the post especially might be necessary for us, but sometimes I think we sag too much without the hard help, especially on penetration.  Go all the way or don’t sag nearly as much, because half-hearted help accomplishes little on the drive and just leaves shooters open.

  • ChathaM

    One of the culprits re: the weak offensive 3-point numbers is shot selection. Every game, there seem to be a number of early-clock 3’s taken that are simply not good shots to take. Beilein does want his guys shooting when they feel they’re open, so that mentality plays into the shot selection, I’m sure. It’s a fine line that I’m sure the staff is trying to teach to the main shot selection offenders on the team.

    I believe Smotrycz is a much better shooter than he’s shown thus far in Big Ten play. His shot selection has been pretty good, and I expect his numbers to improve.

    Defensively, I don’t mind the general plan of securing the paint at the expense of the 3-point line, given UM’s size disadvantage. In addition to limiting the number of good looks oponents get from 10 feet and in, the strategy allows for maximum defensive rebounding prescence, and that’s important for a team like UM, for which defensive rebounding has to be a team effort. In the MSU clip above, 5 of the 7 made 3’s were contested. I think the goal should be to eliminate the uncontested 3’s, and tip your hat to opponents who can make a good percentage of contested shots. This defensive strategy may change as soon as next year, when McGary and a healthy Horford will allow our perimeter defenders to stay home more often.

  • AC1997

    I think two interesting data points to add to this discussion would be 3pt shooting in non-conference games (when Smotrycz was on fire and Haradaway wasn’t a black hole) and historical 3pt shooting. 

    After the disappointing season two years ago I did some research for a post on another site and found that if Michigan had made a league-average % of their three pointers they would have likely been on the bubble with a good chance of getting in.  Last year they did a better job with that % and found their way into the tourney.  So the question is, can they continue to win this season with improved 2-pt FG% while continuing to shoot below average from deep? 

    I also agree with the one comment about shot selection.  Hardaway and Burke have a tendency to take bad shots that hurt the % (much like Manny Harris used to do).  I actually think Smotrycz is taking good shots and just in a slump.  I think some of Burke’s struggles with the pick and roll are affecting the quality of shots that we’re getting too, which wasn’t the case earlier in the season. 

  • MGoTweeter

    GRIII and McGary both nominated for McDonald’s All-American game…

    • Stauskas as well. I was under the impression that McGary wasn’t eligible b/c he’s a fifth year so we’ll see.

      • rlcBlue

        From the Big Mac Press Kit

        “Nominated players must be high school seniors having only participated in eight semesters of high school”


        Fifth-Year Players
        The selection criteria to be named to the McDonald’s All American Games Team adheres to the rules and regulations of
        the National High School Federation which states that once a student/athlete enters his/her ninth grade year, he/she has
        four consecutive years to complete his/her high school eligibility. Therefore, fifth-year players are not eligible to participate
        in the McDonald’s All American High School Basketball Games.”

        So I don’t know why Mitch would be eligible, either…

  • rlcBlue

    It’s really hard to look good in conference play. The teams know each other so well, and fine-tune their strategies to such a degree, that the margin of victory ends up being determined by things like which team can execute their third-best option more effectively.

    Case in point, UM vs. MSU: which star had a better game, Green or Hardaway? To me, it looks like an ugly tie. Both teams were determined to stop the other’s #1 option, and both succeeded. The networks hate this, because their “Star Watch” graphics look really stupid when both stars are neutralized, but that’s life in Big 10 conference games. The game came down to Trey Burke being more awesome than Sparty’s ape-shit three point shooting bench, and Stu Douglass stepping up a little bit more than Derrick Nix.

    My take on the three point shooting slump is that the opposition knows we can knock down open shots, and so they’re determined to stay home on the shooters. Now it’s easy to say that Beilein’s offense relies on the three, but the more complicated description is that it’s designed to take advantage of whatever the defense is giving you. So if the defense is playing up on the shooters, what’s available is plays like the backdoor, the pick&roll, and the isolation. When we have a shooter at the 5 spot, the backdoor is available, but when it’s Morgan we have to rely on the P&R or the isolation. Teams are trying to adjust to the P&R, and we’re making counter-adjustments, and so the two man game has gone from a big advantage to a slim one.

    So what’s our big advantage? Something really encouraging, something that we haven’t seen from Beilein’s UofM teams before. One of the top 2 point shooting teams in the country! Novak taking his man – Smotrycz taking his man – Douglass taking his man – and especially Burke abusing whatever poor hapless schlep that tries to stay in front of him.

    How will teams counter this? We’ll see two different approaches in the next three games. Arkansas will try to stop us from running our offense at all. They’ll be playing with fire, though. If we don’t turn the ball over against the press, there will be open three point shots all over the place. If we hit our threes in a 70 possession game – well, remember the Oakland game? If we don’t knock down the open threes in transition, not so much fun.

    At West Lafayette and Columbus, though, they’ll try to stop us by playing fundamentally sound half court defense with better athletes than ours. I don’t think Purdue has those athletes, but I fear OSU does.

    • sane1

      I remember that Clemson was a renowned full court pressure team but we were able to prepare for it and had no problem with it until the game was out of reach. With a days rest and several days to prepare, we may be able to handle the Hogs.

  • That dude

    This will change when we get Stauskas. He will be in Diebler/Laettner territory, except way less annoying than either of those guys. 

    And McGary will be blocking 7 footers, eliminating our double-team problem; maybe if we can leave Morgan in the PF slot while McGary’s on the floor we can have one of those mean Sullinger-Lauderdale paint combos and break every tired Beilein stereotype in the book. 

  • Kokobear