McGary’s show is fairly soft but there’s little concern of Nick Collela driving the lane (although he did at one point for an and one) and McGary eliminates the potential of a shot.
Rather than providing help, Tim Hardaway Jr. actually takes a step toward his man – Ross Travis, a 14% three point shooter – on the wing.
By the time Hardaway starts to come to the lane with help, Boronvjak is already catching the ball and ready to lay it in.
Here’s full motion:
Here’s the same action again – with both Stauskas and Hardaway failing to provide any help in the lane.
There is merit in the strategy. Not only does better help make a difference, Michigan has a couple of bigs that are usually pretty good at disrupting with the hedge. Mitch McGary is great moving his feet on the perimeter, Jordan Morgan is fairly mobile and Jon Horford has solid length to defend passes. It should come as no surprise that Michigan forces pick and roll ball handlers into more turnovers than any other league team.
Burke could probably do a better job fighting through this screen, and McGary probably could have done a better job hedging as DJ Newbill still nearly turns the corner. But luckily for Burke and McGary – their three teammates are all firmly positioned to provide help. All three help defenders are in or near the paint and ready to help. Robinson is the first key as his presence on the elbow forces Newbill to turn back into McGary and Burke.
As Newbill crosses over, he meets McGary and Burke recovering. There’s room for a pass to pass between Burke and McGary but Borovnjak isn’t open rolling to the basket because Michigan’s other two help defenders are at the ready. Hardaway and LeVert both have a foot in the paint and are ready to take away the the pass to the rolling big man.
Newbill realizes that fact and turns right back into Burke who ties him up for a turnover. Here’s the full motion:
Zone probably isn’t the answer
A common refrain among Michigan fans whether at the bar or in our open thread is: if Michigan can’t check anyone in man-to-man, then why doesn’t it just play zone? The problem is that Michigan’s zone defense hasn’t been all too effective.
That’s a small sample size, with just 113 possessions in 26 games, but the results aren’t generally encouraging.
Michigan has only played zone for 26 possessions in Big Ten games and the Wolverines have surrendered 27 points – 1.04 points per trip.
Michigan has played predominantly 2-3 or 1-3-1 zone looks with a couple possessions of 3-2 sprinkled in. The 1-3-1 and 2-3/3-2 have very different goals. Michigan’s 1-3-1 zone is primarily designed to force turnovers while the 2-3 is more to limit penetration.
A majority of those zone defensive possessions came against Ohio State (12 in two games), Illinois (5) and Michigan State (4). The fact that Michigan was playing from behind in most of those games before it switched to the zone makes it pretty clear that John Beilein considers moving to the zone something of a desperation move.
Michigan’s youth has been exposed in man-to-man sets quite a bit and it’s hard to deny that the roster lacks a lot of experience in the post, quickness at some of the guard spots and has struggled to consistently make defensive rotations (as evidenced above). But zone defense requires practice too and experience can be just as detrimental in a zone defense.
Other than a couple of non-conference games – the 1-3-1 against Pittsburgh stands out – the zone hasn’t looked particularly effective and the numbers back that up. There are a lot of teams in the Big Ten that have great shooters – see Jordan Hulls in the corner at Assembly Hall – and know how to get open looks. The fact that Michigan actually forces more turnovers on man-to-man (16.4% TO Rate) than zone (13.3% TO Rate) possessions shows that the 1-3-1 trap rarely works and more often than not, Michigan’s zone defense is reduced to hoping opponents miss open jump shots.
However, with a week off and plenty of preparation time before Illinois, it would be a bit surprising if Michigan doesn’t at least experiment with the zone down the stretch.