Earlier this week I posted trendlines of every Big Ten team’s performance to date and wrote that Penn State was playing its best basketball of the conference season and was bound to win its first conference game soon. Next week in Evanston against a struggling Northwestern team seemed more likely than at home against Michigan.
Michigan led by 15 points with just over 10 minutes to play and Penn State’s ability to play the Wolverines close for the better part of two games over the last two weeks felt like an heartwarming but insignificant story. Then the wheels fell off. The Nittany Lions outscored the Wolverines 33-12 to close out the game for their first win of the Big Ten season.
This wasn’t the sort of raucous crowd that the Wolverines have faced in East Lansing or Bloomington – the box score listed a generous attendance figure of 8,892 – but the run seemed to snowball so quickly that nobody was quite sure what happened. Michigan players walked off the floor in disbelief as a day that began with rejuvenated Big Ten title dreams ended with even more questions about a struggling Wolverine team that once felt invincible.
What happened to Michigan? A defensive collapse.
Michigan’s offense was bad over the final 10 minutes but its defense was atrocious. Penn State scored 33 points on its final 19 possessions of the game – 1.74 points per trip. The Nittany Lions scored at least one point on 15 of the final 19 possessions. One of the four empty possessions was an 0-for-2 trip to the free throw line, the others included a missed layup, a missed jumper and a turnover that Michigan promptly bobbled out of bounds.
Penn State attempted 18 free throws and made 4-of-4 3-point attempts during that final stretch and the Wolverines looked hopeless in defense.
How bad was Michigan’s defense? This was the Wolverines’ worst defensive outing of the season and it came against the Big Ten’s worst offense. This was just the eighth time this season that Penn State surpassed a point per possession and its 1.24 point per possession output was its best offensive output since December 27th, 2010.
The culprit, once again, was the ball screen. Michigan’s aggressive trapping hedge simply didn’t work. Penn State showed patience and managed to exploit late help defense after passing out of the trap. Defending ball screens like this is a strategic decision but the results aren’t there. My hypothesis is that Beilein is attempting to cheat to compensate for Michigan’s lack of an elite on-ball defender like Aaron Craft or Keith Appling that can fight over ball screens quickly and consistently. Michigan needs to trap because that’s the only way Beilein is confident he can keep the opposing ball handler out of the lane. Whether the strategy is right or wrong, the execution is lacking. Michigan’s bigs would trap but they weren’t able to reliably prevent penetration or cut off passing lanes without fouling.
Michigan’s offense was phenomenal for the first 30 minutes but also slowed down the stretch. In the final 6:30 of the game, the Wolverines didn’t make a field goal, turned the ball over twice and missed three free throw attempts.
Regardless of whether the calls were right or wrong, block-charge fouls had a major influence on the game. Michigan took one charge but was whistled for three or four blocking fouls while attempting to draw the charge. On the other end the Wolverines were whistled for three charges. Those 50-50 calls manifested themselves in a number of uncharacteristic Wolverine statistics: Penn State free throws and Michigan turnovers. Michigan turns the ball over and fouls less than any team in the country yet both statistics proved to be the Wolverines undoing at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Michigan gave the ball away on 22 percent of its possessions and allowed the Nittany Lions 27 free throw attempts to 57 field goal attempts.
Michigan’s late game execution left plenty to be desired. The Wolverines committed poor fouls, turned the ball over against Penn State’s trap, and mismanged the clock down the stretch. Despite the late mistakes, Michigan made 66% of its two point attempts and seemed to be capable of getting a layup whenever it didn’t trip over itself. The Wolverines dominated on the offensive glass while missed threes (5-of-20) and sloppy turnovers were the only blemishes on an otherwise solid offensive performance. Michigan still managed 1.15 points per offensive possession, just a hair above its in-conference average, and plenty sufficient to win a game with a moderate defensive effort.
There are plenty of teams with a bad loss on their resume (Kansas, Georgetown and Miami all have losses to sub-top 100 teams). One game doesn’t define a season and it took the Wolverines 28 games to catch a bad loss. However, Michigan’s troubles are concerning. The Wolverine defense has been shredded for the better part of the last seven games and Michigan is starting to look like a team running out of gas rather than struggling through a midseason hiccup. With Michigan State headed to Ann Arbor, it’s starting to feel like Sunday could either spark the Wolverines down the stretch or send Michigan into a nasty downward spiral.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: I thought Hardaway played a great offensive game, even without consistent three point shooting (2-7). he was 6-of-9 on twos, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out three assists. Foul trouble plagued him a bit in the second half but the way he played, driving the ball to the rack and playing with aggression was exactly what Michigan needs from him on the offensive end of the floor.
- Trey Burke: Burke’s six turnovers matched his total over his last five games and they seemed to come all over the map – careless bobbles of the ball, a charge, a couple of forced passes. To his credit, he had a number of highlight moves, pull up jumpers and a devastating hesitation crossover in transition, and still handed out six assists. Penn State essentially face guarded Burke down the stretch and that seemed to dismantle most of Michigan’s offensive flow.
- Nik Stauskas: Early on Stauskas made some strong plays taking it to the rim (3-of-5 2pt) and it took him a bit to heat up but he finished 2-of-4 from three point range. The eight rebounds (2 off.) are something of a pleasant surprise but the five turnovers are frustrating. The two charges late in the first half are bearable, they were close and he was being aggressive. The two frustrating turnovers were in the first half when he passed up an open three to make a bad pass and when he was trapped late in the game and threw the ball away for an easy layup. Stauskas obviously lacks some defensive foot speed but the thing that stands out to me seems to be his tendency to help off of Penn State’s shooters when he shouldn’t.
- Glenn Robinson III: Robinson had a couple nice drive to start each half, an emphatic dunk in the first and a nice scoop reverse layup in the second. He had a nice tip slam in the second half but that was it. He missed his other five field goal attempts and still looks like a guy who has zero confidence in his jumper. Defensively he’s thinking every move and he’s not reacting and that’s manifesting itself by making him a step late almost everywhere he needs to be, from defensive rotations to loose balls.
- Jordan Morgan: Morgan was productive around the basket, always in position for a number of drop off passes and he finished well. His free throw shooting was bad – 1-of-4 – and most of the attempts didn’t look close. I know he hasn’t played a lot of minutes in the last month but some of his attempts were scary. I still don’t think he’s 100% physically as he looked to be lacking some lift when going for rebounds and a half step slow recovering from the screen and roll.
- Mitch McGary: McGary had a great first half hustle play which led to a layup and took a charge later in his first shift He had a strong offensive board and a composed putback through contact. That was the good, but McGary only played eight minutes. His steal and breakaway layup in the first half would have been a huge play had Michigan held on as it turned the tide going into the break.
- Jon Horford: Horford scored six points including a follow up tip in and a nice basket off of an out of bounds cut and grabbed four rebounds (three offensive). He played more minutes than Mitch McGary on the night and you have to wonder if that was due to some frustration from John Beilein about how the big men were playing inside.
- Caris LeVert: I liked that LeVert didn’t hesitate with his first two field goal attempts, a missed three and a strong drive, but obviously the result wasn’t there. Still for every Illinois game where he looks comfortable, there’s a game like this where he looks like a freshman that could have been better served with a redshirt.
- Spike Albrecht: Albrecht made two great plays in the first half, a nice look to Horford who was fouled and an alley oop to Hardaway. He played three minutes in the second half and missed a (open) three late in the game from the corner.