Six and Six: Thoughts on Michigan’s slump

Wisconsin 68, Michigan 59-33
Dustin Johnston

Michigan enters the opening round of the NCAA tournament with more questions than answers. The Wolverines clearly still have ability but look something of a shell of the team they once were. The free flowing transition play, bubbling confidence, defensive rebounding and nearly flawless offensive execution that was prevalent in November, December and January is a thing of the past. It’s clear that the wear and tear of the Big Ten has clearly taken its toll on a team that was once on its way to a special season.

But John Beilein isn’t ready to admit that Michigan is in a slump.

“I think we’re playing really well. I think we played Indiana as tough as anybody’s played Indiana and we could’ve easily won that game,” Michigan’s head coach explained on Sunday evening. “The tough loss we had was at Penn State. Every other loss that we had, we were probably playing a really good team and we didn’t play quite well enough but we played pretty well. ”

Michigan is 6-6 over its last 12 games. That’s a 6-6 record since the Wolverines traveled to Indiana with a 20-1 record, ranked No. 1 in the country on top of the basketball world. The Wolverines have been through it all over the last 12 games – gut wrenching losses, dismal blowouts and Houdini escaping acts – and it’s clear the emotional roller coaster has affected a young Michigan roster.

You can attempt to cherry pick one bad bounce against Indiana, Ben Brust’s three point shot, or an awful 10 minutes at Penn State but at the end of the day this is a Michigan team that hasn’t played nearly as well over the last 12 games.

The shift in performance has been dramatic. A comparison of Michigan’s first 13 games against high-major foes – in which Michigan went 12-1 – to its last final 12 is dramatic.

Tempo Offense Defense Margin Avg Opp KenPom Rank
First 13 67.6 1.20 0.98 0.22 65
Second 12 65.7 1.07 1.07 -0.01 50

The strength of schedule was more difficult in the last 12 games but not by a significant degree. The average KenPom rank of Michigan’s first 13 high major opponents was 65, compared to 50 in its final 12 games. The difference in efficiency margin, .23, is massive as the Wolverines offense regressed by .13 points per trip and its defense regressed by .9 points per trip.

Offense too

Almost all of the talk surrounding Michigan’s problems over the last month has surrounded the defense. The numbers above prove that the offense is almost as much to blame.

Michigan’s offense was so good in early season play that a couple blown defensive assignments were nothing to worry about. But watching Michigan’s offense regress from unparalleled to relatively human has caused the defensive woes to be magnified as well.

A major reason for that regression has been opponents ability to limit Michigan’s transition offense. The Wolverines were one of the most explosive transition teams in the country early on but those opportunities haven’t been as plentiful or efficient in recent weeks.

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Since January 8th, less than 17 percent of Michigan’s offensive possessions have come in transition. The Wolverines ridiculous efficiency on transition possessions was always due to regress toward the mean so the fact that Michigan scored 1.21 points per transition possession since January 8th shouldn’t come as a huge concern. Minnesota (1.21) and Ohio State (1.15) are the other two most efficient Big Ten transition teams and even with some regression Michigan is among the best in the country.

Michigan’s transition offense hasn’t lost its bite, the Wolverines simply aren’t getting as many transition opportunities. Of course those opportunities stem from defense. The Wolverines never run off of a made basket and strictly run off of clean defensive rebounds and turnovers. Over the last month, there hasn’t been many of either.

Defensive Rebounding

There’s not just one reason that Michigan’s defense has regressed. We’ve touched on poor ball screen defense, the lack of great perimeter quickness and seemingly everything else in between over the last few weeks. Defensive rebounding might be the most important regression as it affects not only the defense, but the offense.

On January 15th, Michigan ranked 2nd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Over the last two months the Wolverines have fallen to 75th and are just seventh best in the Big Ten.

Sticking with the same sample size, Michigan’s 25 games against major conference teams, the defensive rebounding regression is clear.

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Michigan was a really good defensive rebounding team early in the season. Pittsburgh, Kansas State and West Virginia are not just top-30 offensive rebounding teams, they are three of the five best offensive rebounding teams that Michigan has faced this season. Michigan held those three schools to a 26% offensive rebounding percentage.

If Michigan was one of the nation’s best defensive rebounding teams in November and December, it’s one of the worst in February and March. The Wolverine front line has been gouged on the offensive glass.

Indiana rebounded 57% of its misses, Michigan State rebounded 50% of its misses – those aren’t subpar defensive rebounding performances, they are dreadful. Over the last month the Wolverines have only had adequate showings on the defensive glass against Wisconsin and Illinois, two of the weaker offensive rebounding units in the league.

Individual Defense

We’ve quoted Synergy Sports individual defensive numbers over the course of this season as an attempt to glean insight into one of the hardest elements of basketball to quantify: individual defense.

The point per defensive possession numbers assign credit, or blame, to an individual player for every shot and measure the points per possession that each player allows. We pulled the data again and split it between pre-January 15th data and post-January 15th – essentially the midway point of the season. Michigan’s schedule was certainly more stringent down the stretch, so some natural regression should be expected.

Before Jan 15 Since Jan 15
Name Poss Points PPP Poss Points PPP Diff
Morgan 59 35 0.593 46 24 0.522 0.071
Stauskas 123 74 0.602 100 108 1.080 -0.478
Robinson 115 76 0.661 132 89 0.674 -0.013
Burke 137 97 0.708 159 116 0.730 -0.022
Hardaway 113 106 0.938 136 103 0.757 0.181
McGary 57 56 0.982 59 45 0.763 0.219

The differential column shows the improvement (positive) or regression (negative) in points per possession allowed.

Jordan Morgan’s defensive consistency and productivity is unrivaled on the Michigan roster. The numbers certainly justify his place on the All-Big Ten defensive team. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mitch McGary both improved defensively in the second half of the season and I think that was clear from McGary’s play.

But it’s impossible to look at this chart without noticing Nik Stauskas’s regression defensively. In the first half of the season, the numbers painted Stauskas as a surprisingly effective defender that was targeted often. Down the stretch he’s been Michigan’s worst defender by a wide margin. While Stauskas has done a better job of sticking with shooters defensively in recent games, his problems seem to stem from understanding help side defense, ball watching and a simple lack of aggression.

The 6-foot-6 freshman is whistled for 0.9 fouls per 40 minutes. That’s fewer than any other player in Division I basketball. Michigan sends opponents to the free throw line less often than any other team in the country so low foul numbers shouldn’t be surprising. Robinson 1.4 FC/40 (24th), Burke 2.0 FC/40 (174th) and Hardaway 2.3 FC/40 (334th) all rank nationally in fewest fouls whistled per 40 minutes but none quite to the Stauskas extreme.

Bottom Line

It all starts with defense. Michigan’s offense has actually regressed more significantly than its defense but given the poor defensive rebounding and fewer transition opportunities it feels like that’s a residual effect. The Wolverines’ once promising season could end with a couple bad bounces of the ball this weekend or they could regain their swagger that saw them win 20 of their first 21. At the end of the day, Michigan would be best served to go out running. Push the tempo and lean on what got it this far. Force a few turnovers, grab a few extra defensive rebounding and start to push the tempo and perhaps things fall back in place.

  • http://www.ideafusionmedia.com MaizeNBlueJ

    The defensive rebounding is what puzzles me the most. What’s the difference between the beginning of the season and now?

    I’d love to go back and watch the film to see. Dylan, do you have any insights on this? I really feel if we clean up the defensive rebounding, we can get out in transition a lot more, which would solve a lot of our offensive woes as well.

    • Maizeforlife

      I think it is the basic fundamental of boxing out. I have seen far too many second chance points come because a guy streaks toward the hoop on a miss, completely untouched, to get second chance points.

      • http://www.ideafusionmedia.com MaizeNBlueJ

        It very well could be a lack of boxing out. However, my original question still stands: Why? You don’t just forget how to block out mid-season. If we were so good early in the year, why are we struggling so mightily now? Is it just a lack of effort?

        • Mattski

          This is definitely the biggest unexplained issue that Dylan’s article leaves me with. But I think it’s partly explained by mlaw’s observation that although the ratings may suggest that the end-of-season tilts against Big Ten teams weren’t that much tougher they definitely were, especially where it comes to aggressive and muscular rebounding. That and I don’t doubt that the team wore down a little, and even played with a little less fire as they found themselves getting owned down the stretch in some games.

          • rlcBlue

            At the end of the regular season, Michigan’s game-by-game performance in DR% compared to each opponent’s season OR% – e.g. Pittsburgh rebounded over 40% of their misses on the season, but against us they got only 18%, so the data point for that game was -22%.

            If only Disqus would display the graph a little larger, you’d see that up until 1/27, Michigan held 16 of 18 teams below their season average; the only exceptions were the CMU post-Christmas sleepwalkathon and Minnesota, when the nation’s best offensive rebounding team grabbed one more rebound than their season average would predict.

            From 1/27 through the end of the regular season, Michigan allowed 7 of 12 teams to exceed their season average. What happened on 1/27? Jordan Morgan sprained his ankle two minutes into the Illinois game. It really seems to be a huge factor.

        • jakelam2116

          I think it has more to do with the fact that Michigan is often forced to help out, which leaves guys not next to their men and thus the offensive players can sneak through the cracks of the defense.

          The other thing is fundamental — especially Horford and Robinson struggle with grabbing strong, two-handed rebounds. Too often, the ball is chipped away when it should have been secured.

        • Devin

          I truly believe that the regression of our rebounding this season is mainly because of the talent differential. Our non-conference schedule was played against inferior competition. Neither Pitt nor Kansas St were inform yet when we played them.

          But I bet this is an obvious observation for most. I guess I believe we may have been slightly overrated this season, but please don’t think I’m taking anything away from this team. It’s the best Michigan team in 2 decades.

  • Mattski

    Superlative analysis. I would consider removing the “but” from in front of Beilein’s early quote and placing it in front of your own analysis that follows, because what you do is show that there really has been significant regression despite the coachspeak.

    It’s fascinating to me that while a lot of eyes have been on Robinson–as he took on some very strong players–Stauskas’s D has been a bigger problem. This kind of passes the eyeball test, too, from where I sit. Your analysis tends to back up the assertion made by some people that Michigan needs to foul more, especially out on the wings. I wouldn’t mind seeing Timmy get called for one here and there, closing out a little more aggressively, either.

  • David

    Nice article Dylan but the sarcastic side of me thinks I could have saved you a bunch of time and boiled this entire article to “This team gave up 51 points in a half to a team that didn’t score 50 in a GAME 6 times this year”

  • gpsimms

    Excellent article as usual. Your Oreb% graph has the colors for the average and the individual game flipped.

  • MLaw

    Great analysis! I recognize this is unpopular opinion, but I still can’t get over how misleading one particular statistic is: the average kenpom rating of first 13 versus back 12. In the first 13 we played 1 top 10 team. 3 teams 25-50. 1 team 50-100. and 3 games against 100+. Back 12 we played 4 games against 100+, but also 6 games against kenpom top 10 teams along with 1 25-50 team and one 50-100 team. It’s not surprising that you have a tougher go in 6 games against the top 10. The Penn State debacle is still the most confusing data point of the season and most damning. There is no question that the defense and confidence have drooped. I would attribute it most to teams picking on Stauskas now that they have scouted his weak defense. There is a clear formula to beating Michigan- Crash the boards, play physically tough and disrupt Burke offensively. If you do that, we lose, if not we have a good shot at winning. I don’t see many teams in our bracket that can do that against Michigan. Anything less than sweet 16 and this season is a failure, but a final four is still very possible with these match-ups. Thank god Big Ten season is over. It has been said many times, but no one will face a schedule in the big dance like we had in the back half of the big ten season. I think this team picks itself off the mat just in time to make some serious noise.

  • Joshua Ross

    I don’t understand this team. It seems like they should know they’re good in transition so you’d think they’d be out running, pressing the tempo, and aggressively rebounding. None of those are really true. We often look flat-footed, tired, and slow, particularly to start games, and we find ourselves playing from down 10 a few minutes in often. Stauskas’ defensive regression sucks, and GRIII has been non-existent the 2nd half of the season.

  • Adam St Patrick

    IMO you’re gonna look worse on D when you can’t rebound, but especially when you are facing tough, tough teams and playing their style rather than yours. I agree about boxing out, for sure. But you can’t talk about rebounding without noting the 6-6 PF. There are certainly guys that can handle PF at 6-6. Hard to argue that Robinson is one of them, given that he struggled on both ends of the floor during the conference schedule. I’ll be very discouraged if we see him starting there next year, even though the frosh>soph progression will make him incrementally more able to handle it.

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