Progress Report: Big Ten Midterms

Michigan State at Michigan 31
Photo: Dustin Johnston

Halfway through Big Ten play last season, Michigan was 3-6 and the NCAA tournament was little more than an afterthought. Of course, the Wolverines finished conference play by winning six of their final nine games and ending up in the NCAA tournament. Halfway through this season, Michigan sits at 6-3, a game out of first place, and appears to have at least an outside shot at competing for the conference title and likely earning a high NCAA tournament seed.

In this post we take a look at the Wolverines’ performance in Big Ten games. In what facets has this Michigan team struggled and excelled and where it should improve or regress over the final two months of the season. We also take a look inside the conference numbers to breakdown some individual Wolverine performances thus far.

A Closer Look at the Profile

Category Offense Defense
Efficiency 103.4 (5) 100.7 (5)
Tempo 59.6 (11)
Effective FG%: 49.0 (8) 50.4 (7)
Turnover %: 16.7 (3) 20.4 (3)
Off. Reb. %: 30.7 (6) 30.1 (6)
FTA/FGA: 26.8 (12) 26.5 (1)
3P%: 30.7 (10) 38.4 (10)
2P%: 51.1 (5) 47.1 (4)

Stats from KenPom.com, Big Ten rank in parenthesis. Conference games only.

John Beilein has emphasized the value of every possession in almost every pre- and post-game press conference since the beginning of Big Ten play. He points out how the majority Michigan’s league games have been decided in the final one or two possessions and that his team needs to embrace the concept. The numbers show a team that is embodying Beilein’s philosophy.

Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team playing at a slower pace than the Wolverines. Naturally the fewer possessions in a game, the more importance that’s placed on every individual possession. To further that importance, the Wolverines are winning the turnover battle. Not turning the ball over has been a staple of Beilein teams, and that hasn’t changed, but this team also ranks third in forcing turnovers.

Beilein’s teams have traditionally been maligned for their rebounding inabilities but this team is rebounding right at the conference average. The defensive rebounding numbers took a big hit versus Ohio State but Michigan more than held its own on the defensive glass against the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue.

Penn State at Michigan 8
Photo: Dustin Johnston

As for free throws, don’t look to Ann Arbor. Michigan gets to the line less often than any other Big Ten team but also allows the lowest ratio of free throw attempts in the league. The Wolverines ability to avoid fouling is a testament to their experience and discipline, especially given the high forced turnover rate. However, the inability to get to the line is certainly a product of leading the league in percentage of three point attempts.

The Wolverines are doing a good-to-great job in most of the peripheral statistical areas but at the end of the day the game boils down to shooting. Michigan is the third worst three point shooting team in the conference despite attempting a Big Ten high 43% of its field goals from outside. Three point shooting has been the Achilles’ heel of the Wolverine defense as well, Big Ten opponents are making 38.4% of their three point attempts.

It’s tough to win consistently with below average shooting but the Wolverines three point shooting woes can be looked at in one of two ways. The negative, maybe this team just can’t shoot. The positive, this team does a good enough job in other areas that they could be very dangerous if a few more threes start falling.

The Closing Stretch

Michigan’s first nine games ranked 5th in the league in terms of strength of schedule and while the back half appears a bit less strenuous, there are still five road games to just four home games left on the slate. In order, here’s Michigan’s final nine games:

Indiana, at Michigan State, at Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio State, at Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and at Penn State

Zack Novak told reporters early in the season that one of Michigan’s season goals was to go undefeated at home. With four home games to play, that goal is still very possible. Indiana, Purdue and Illinois look like games that Michigan should win at home while Ohio State is a typical game that Michigan could win at home. The Wolverines played with the Buckeyes in Columbus despite a horrendous rebounding effort and a massive free throw disparity and, with a prime time game back home at the Crisler Center, a home upset seems possible if not likely.

Michigan has just one Big Ten road win so it’s tough to slide any road game into the win column immediately. Michigan State is as tough as it gets but Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State are games that typically fall into the “winnable” road game category. Illinois is one of two Big Ten teams that Michigan has yet to play and the pair of teams split last year with Michigan getting a monumental comeback victory in the Big Ten Tournament.

Player-by-Player Numbers

Name MPG ORtg Usage PPG 2P 2P% 3P 3FG% eFG% FT FT% RPG
Hardaway 37.2 102.8 26.1% 15.7 37-68 54.4% 12-55 21.8% 44.7% 31-41 75.6% 4.4
Burke 37.2 110.3 27.1% 15.7 36-75 48.0% 13-38 34.2% 49.1% 30-38 78.9% 3.9
Douglass 29.6 115.7 15.1% 8.8 11-21 52.4% 15-36 41.7% 58.8% 12-15 80.0% 2.0
Novak 33.6 110.8 13.1% 7.7 16-30 53.3% 11-33 33.3% 51.6% 4-6 66.7% 4.6
Morgan 27.8 95.9 17.5% 6.6 27-47 57.4% 0-0 0.0% 57.4% 5-13 38.5% 6.8
Smotrycz 22.2 84.8 20.2% 5.1 8-24 33.3% 7-29 24.1% 34.9% 9-11 81.8% 4.2
Vogrich 8.6 129.4 8.7% 1.7 2-3 66.7% 3-8 37.5% 59.1% 2-2 100.0% 1.2
McLimans 4.8 137.2 12.4% 1.3 2-2 100.0% 2-6 33.3% 62.5% 0-0 0.0% 1.0

Some individual observations half way through league play:

  • Trey Burke is using more possession than any other Wolverine but he’s been fairly efficient. His usage rating of 27.1% is fourth highest in the Big Ten but his offensive rating of 110.3 holds up well against the top 10 high usage players in the Big Ten, ranking third behind Keith Appling and Jared Sullinger among that group.
  • Stu Douglass has been Michigan’s best three point threat in Big Ten games by a wide margin and he’s emerged as Michigan’s No. 3 scorer in Big Ten play at just under nine points per game. Leading Michigan in steals, he also deserves some credit for the Wolverines improved ability to force turnovers.
  • Tim Hardaway Jr.’s numbers are ugly. Despite shooting 21.8% on threes, Hardaway has attempted 55 threes in nine Big Ten games – that’s the second most in the conference. Masked in Hardaway’s three point shooting struggles (he shot 44% on threes last season) is his improvement inside the arc where he’s raised his 2pt shooting from 48.8% last season to 54.4% this season.
  • Jordan Morgan’s two point shooting numbers are down almost nine percent from Big Ten play last year and he’s shooting just 38.5% from the free throw stripe. On the surface, making 57% of your twos doesn’t sound like a bad thing but there’s room for improvement from Morgan considering a majority of his shots are two or three feet from the basket.
  • Evan Smotrycz’s rebounding regression is natural given the increase in competition but his shooting slump is all mental. Smotrycz’s offensive game is predicated on shooting open threes, he’s just not making them. Open threes were almost automatic for him in December and now he’s hitting at just 24.1%.
  • Zack Novak‘s offensive production seems to have plateaued a bit in conference play, a shift that likely has to do with him playing significantly more minutes at the four position. His shooting numbers aren’t bad but they are significantly worse than non-conference with his 3-point numbers down to 33% from 46% and his 2-point numbers down from 63% to 53%.
  • Early in the season the complaint was that Matt Vogrich wasn’t hitting shots. In limited Big Ten action the complaint is that he’s not even attempting them. Vogrich attempted 25 threes in Big Ten play last season but has attempted just eight this season while also seeing his playing time reduced five minutes per game in league play.

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