Inside the Play: Michigan State’s ball screen defense

Dylan Burkhardt
Trey Burke was the best player on the floor in the first match-up between these two schools but he had his fair share of struggles in the East Lansing rematch. A big part of Burke’s frustrating performance was the fact that Michigan State defended the ball screen more effectively. Tom Izzo’s major shift in philosophy was to pack his defense around the key and prevent Burke from getting any easy buckets around the basket. Here’s a frame-by-frame look at the Spartans’ basic approach.

This set begins (pictured above) as your typical high ball screen with Evan Smotrycz serving as the screener.


Smotrycz sets a solid screen and Burke comes off of it shoulder to shoulder with Keith Appling on his back hip. Derrick Nix doesn’t hedge hard but does show and provide some help before sagging into the lane.


Now watch as Michigan State’s entire defense collapses to the paint. All four other players in maize uniforms are behind the three point line while three Spartans that are playing off the ball have at least one foot in the paint.


Burke continues to drive to his left while three Michigan shooters – Smotrycz, Novak and Douglass – remain wide open on the right side of the court.


Brandon Wood takes away the Hardaway pass to the ball side and Burke doesn’t have the vision, size or trust to reverse the ball. Eventually he stops with the ball and this is where he has the chance to make a play.


From this spot (above) Burke could easily kick the ball to Smotrycz, who is supposed to be defended by Derrick Nix, at the three point line. Smotrycz would likely have an open look but if not, there are two Michigan State players to defend three Michigan shooters. Proper ball movement and an extra pass should lead to an open three point look on the far side of the court.


Rather than make that pass, Burke opts to continue his drive baseline as Travis Trice forces him out of bounds. He eventually tries a desperation kick-out pass to Smotrycz which comes after he had already stepped on the end line.

Here’s the full motion:

This is just one example, and Michigan State didn’t completely eliminate the ball screen action from Michigan’s repertoire but the Spartans did a great job of limiting it. Burke didn’t get any of the easy baskets around the hoop that he had in the first meeting and he never quite seemed comfortable distributing the ball. Here are a handful of other ball screen clips for Sunday’s game including a couple of nice adjustments that you can see Burke make over the course of the game, a bit of good with the bad:

Burke makes some strong plays here. He splits the hedge on one look, finds Morgan on another and rejects the screen once against a hard hedge before failing to finish around the hoop. The theme seems to be that Michigan State was going to make Burke’s attempts around the basket to be as tough as possible, sometimes cheating off of shooters due to the fact that Burke appeared more likely to shoot than kick the ball.

  • Tom_McC

    I think this is the execution part that JB maybe referring too.  Even if guys aren’t shooting well, the obvious pass is Evan on the pop in the first example and UM can play from there.

    Michigan State picked its poison in that instance and fortunately for them that poison wasn’t potent at all because of a misread.  I think Trey missed the pop quite a few times over the course of the game and it’s just part of the learning process. He’ll learn how to deal with it better over time.

    • Evan also had two open looks on the pop and missed em both. Lot’s of fault when it comes to execution I think.

  • Tom_McC

    Right…I’m just talking about the read…it’s really not Trey’s job to make or not make passes based on how guys are shooting.  Presumably, Trey has been instructed to read the defense and find the open man or take the open shot/drive.

    So yes, Evan certainly needs to do his part but in terms of execution in this particular discussion, Trey needs to make the pass to the open guy, regardless of how he has shot.  Teams will still run out at guys like Evan, Matt, Tim, etc despite their struggles and that can open up opportunities for shot fake and drive type stuff.

    By no means am I blaming Trey…I think he is playing very well…but he does have room for improvement in regards to this specific action.

    • Yep. We are on the same page. He definitely missed a handful of reads and I think that the best defense against Michigan has to force him into a situation where the best play isn’t really one that he’s as comfortable with like this.

      • ForeverBlue

        Unfortunately I think it was more than a handful of reads.  He’s not in command of JB’s offense yet and Sunday it showed when State took away options 1 and 1a.  I have little doubt though that he won’t watch that film and learn and I think he’ll continue to get better at using ball movement to get what they initially take away. 

  • GregGoBlue

    Great post, thanks Dylan. Trey has gotten caught leaving his feet at the baseline numerous times this season, it worked early on but now that teams are keying on it I’d like to see him eliminate that from his repertoire… or at least use it more judiciously. 

  • Noah


    At the very least, shouldn’t Smot be rotating to the top of the key here to further stretch Draymond and Nix while occupying the space that Trey has created? My problem here is the standing around from the other four guys. No roll from Smot nor rotation to the top of the key. No backdoor cut from Tim. I understand that State is really trying to take away the paint, but damn…We are essentially forcing Sparty to guard one guy here after the pick.

  • Wow, this is nice work.  Very well done visually and insightful. Good job, Dylan.