Early concerns with Michigan’s defense

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan 87, Coppin State 45-13Yesterday we looked at Michigan’s offense and where the Wolverines need to improve. Today, we take a closer look at the Michigan defense and what problems have presented themselves in early season play.

We focus on Michigan’s transition defense, zone defense and who has displayed the most consistent defensive ability early on this season. (Photo: Dustin Johnston)

1. Transition defense is a concern

Michigan’s defense has been pretty good this season. The Wolverines defended Iowa State and Charlotte better than any other team this season and defended Duke very well for about 30 minutes. Michigan’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 30th, three spots ahead of its offense and 18 spots above where last year’s team finished.

Michigan’s half-court man-to-man defense has been excellent, surrendering .741 points per possession, good for the 90th percentile nationally. That being said, there are a few trouble spots starting with Michigan’s transition defense.

According to stats from Hoop-Math, Wolverine opponents have a 63.2 effective field goal percentage in transition compared to just 42.82 effective field goal percentage in the half court. Michigan’s transition eFG% allowed ranks 321st whereas its half court eFG% allowed ranks 47th. The 20.38% difference between Michigan’s eFG% defense in transition compared to the half court is the fourth largest in college basketball.

As ugly as those numbers are, there is a slight saving grace for John Beilein. Michigan can’t stop anyone on the fast break but it has done a pretty good job of limiting fast break opportunities. Just 21.3% of U-M opponents’ initial field goal attempts come in transition, the 31st best mark in college basketball.

That only minimizes a problem. Teams are going to run on the Wolverines and they need to do a better job of stopping fast break offense. Iowa State had 13 FGAs in transition (77 eFG%), Florida State had 16 (68.8 eFG%), Charlotte had 13 (54 eFG%) and Duke had 10 (75 eFG%). The majority of teams will be more effective in their transition offense but improvement in stopping fast breaks will pay dividends come Big Ten season.

2. Zone defense isn’t the answer.

Michigan has surrendered 36 points in 29 possessions of zone defense. That’s 1.24 points per possession, good for just the 6th percentile nationally. Michigan’s zone defense changed the game against Florida State but other than that has been woefully ineffective. The Wolverines are allowing just .741 points per possession in their half court man defense in comparison.

Michigan is forcing more turnovers (21% turnover rate vs. 17.2% TO Rate) with its zone defense but but opponents have a 77.5 effective field goal percentage and score on 55% of their possessions. Those numbers are ugly.

As ugly as the numbers are, they are also probably skewed to some degree. The 29 possessions of zone defense that Michigan has played have typically come against tougher opponents – Florida State, Duke, etc. – whereas the Wolverines have relied strictly on man-to-man in low-major blowouts. Still, the zone seems to be more of a psychological twist than an actual effective defense.

3. Individual defense

Individual defensive statistics are far from perfect but the Synergy Sports numbers are the most accurate numbers I’ve seen. Because Synergy logs every play, it assigns defensive blame to the primary defender on each field goal attempt or possession. The numbers grade out in a way that passes the eye test for this year’s group..

Player % of Poss. Poss. PPP Allowed Nat. Percentile
Caris LeVert 13.40% 91 0.846 52%
Glenn Robinson III 10.30% 70 0.529 93%
Nik Stauskas 9.10% 62 0.984 30%
Derrick Walton 8.40% 57 0.877 46%
Spike Albrecht 5.90% 40 1.05 21%
Zak Irvin 5.50% 37 0.703 76%
Mitch McGary 4.10% 28 0.714 75%
Jon Horford 3.80% 26 0.538 93%
Jordan Morgan 2.10% 14 0.643 84%

Robinson has been Michigan’s best defender by a wide margin, according to the numbers, and he’s been tested often but has held up fairly well. That’s an encouraging number for the Wolverines because Robinson faces his fair share of difficult defensive assignments at the four position.

The numbers are a bit ugly for Caris LeVert, Nik Stauskas and Spike Albrecht. LeVert has been tested more often than any other Wolverine, perhaps because he’s often matched up on the opponents’ best player, but he hasn’t been great. LeVert’s numbers are troubling because he allowed .883 points per possession last season as well and was among Michigan’s lower tier of defenders. Often praised by John Beilein for his defensive abilities, LeVert has the raw ability but needs to improve on his consistency on that end of the floor.

Stauskas and Albrecht grade our worse than any other Michigan players while Walton isn’t far behind. Opponents score on 40.3% and 47.5% of their offensive possessions against Stauskas and Albrecht respectively.

Zak Irvin, Mitch McGary, Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan all grade out well but have been tested very few times, implying that the Wolverines interior defense was been fairly sound. Michigan is surrendering .802 points per possession defensively on post-ups, 58th percentile nationally, despite opponents posting the Wolverines up on 12.7% of their offensive possessions. This interior defense will be tested against Arizona on Saturday.

  • Adam St Patrick

    When you’re talking about a team with a preseason ranking of 7, high expectations and three potential first-round picks, 30th nationally is pretty bad. Michigan ought to be shooting for top-10 nationally on both sides of the ball.

    I agree with Dylan that under Beilein a great offense and a mediocre defense can work. You can’t argue the results. I think though rather than hoping the team will be a defense-first unit (which makes more sense to me too), what I think is realistic and what I hope for is that toughness and hustle are stressed to a greater extent. Michigan gets flummoxed too often by teams that win the hustle points, and doesn’t often seem to be the team hustling harder.

  • Kam

    Dylan what I’ve noticed with caris is at times he gets over aggressive. Like he will go out and try and pressure the guy near half court which is incredibly hard to do without getting beat because the guy has a lot of room. Also you’re correct its like he just has lapses. Im guessing he will improve because he has the tools. He just has to get use to playing both sides of the ball for 25+ minutes IMO

    • Kam

      Also Glenn has been impressive. Mitch’s ability to shot block at times also surprised me. I don’t thin Spike or Nik will ever be good defenders so its whatever to me. Walton is a freshman and I’ve seen flashes.. Walton just has a lot of late close outs

    • Mattski

      Still something pretty gangly and puppy-like about Caris. I’m guessing that to some degree it could be a matter of coordination–and that it will come.

  • mountain52

    For what it’s worth I wanted to mention the raw statistics comparison between last years team and this years team (as listed on ESPN):

    Last year: 75 PPG, 35 RPG, 14 APG, 6 SPG, 3 BPG, 9 TPG, .484 FG%, .701 FT%, .385 3P%

    This year: 80 PPG, 38 RPG, 16 APG, 6 SPG, 3 BPG, 9 TPG, .464 FG%, .739 FT%, .386 3P%

    I’m not sure how important these numbers are but they don’t show a significant drop off from last year, if any. I am sure the two teams accomplish these numbers in very different ways and there are flaws with both offense and defense but that was true last year as well and it is true of every team.

    • geoffclarke

      Couple things: (1) I give little weight to non-tempo-free or non-advanced statistics. (2) last year’s stats probably were for the whole season, including the B1G, the most difficult part of our season. Take a look at strength of schedule.

      • DingoBlue

        I agree on both your points here. Exclude B1G conf. stats (or even include first two games, NW and Iowa) and compare between last year and this year if you are doing non-temp free. Quickly looking at last year’s stats on kenpom, tempo was 65.1 possessions/game over all of last season, compared to 63.3 poss./game in B1G play. adjO drops from 120.3 to 112.3 over the same change.

        All this is to say most non-tempo free stats won’t matter until you see the whole season’s stats. However, one of those that I do think is worth looking at is FT% which corresponds with my eyeball test that we are definitely getting to the line more this season so far.

  • MLaw

    Dylan, This is more interesting to me than the offensive stuff, which I attribute mostly to PG play, youth, and key injuries(which we managed to avoid last year).

    Defensively- I find it interesting that we actually improved despite the same youth on offense- I thought Trey was a high level defensive player. I am most surprised by GR3’s defense- that is impressive for the large number of possessions he has faced. Perhaps that will key his offensive improvement the rest of the season. Spike and Nik are who they are- good offensive players with obvious defensive liabilities. I think they still have roles even Spike especially in games when we get behind and need a spark.

    The program- I will try to address some of MattD’s arguments cause I don’t think they are crazy. You have to put the defensive performance in context. Our program is still very fragile. Last year’s run will pay dividends for years to come, but we still aren’t the elite recruiting destination for many kids. As long as we don’t have a roster full of high level athletes we won’t be a top 10 defense. For me that is fine. Beilein has done what he had to do- bring the program from the depths to be a national program. When he retires in the next 3-5 years, Michigan will need to lock down an A list coach who we should expect to have a top 15 defense. Beilein is universally hailed as the nomadic program builder. Guess what- he has rebuilt this program. Enjoy his brand of basketball while it is still here- Offense first and finesse. We have the ability to beat anybody( Kansas, Florida, Syracuse) and lose to anybody (Penn State). If the program takes the next step we can expect more consistency and defensive play.

    • geoffclarke

      (1) Trey made high level defensive plays (block on Siva, steal from Appling, etc.) at winning times, but I don’t know if he was a high level defensive player. Dylan, do you know his stats from last year? (2) I expected an improvement on defense this year, but did not expect such a dramatic dropoff on offense, BUT I am still hopeful that both sides have room for improvement.

      • Kam

        Im pretty sure trey was just an average defender. He mad winning plays tho! He was beat at times though. He wasn’t great. Average but made plays when they mattered

  • mikey_mac

    The zone numbers are not surprising to me at all. Duke must have averaged 2.0+ PPP against UM’s zone/trap. They give up open looks inside and out at will when playing zone. I believe it was Charlotte that exploited it so badly in just two possessions that UM had to abandon it.

  • geoffclarke

    One point that I don’t think anyone has mentioned is that although last year’s AdjD numbers were worse than this years, Michigan had an inordinate number of long stretches holding opponents scoreless (I’m sure it was posted in this blog) – indicative that the defense could step up when necessary. To me, it doesn’t seem as if we’ve had nearly as many long stretches holding a team scoreless, although I don’t have any data to back that up.

  • chazer

    What a great debate today and an excellent topic….thanks to Joe and Dylan for the insight and your ability to communicate the details. It keeps me coming back for more and I enjoy the passion on the board. Though….
    Banging JB and his staff for not teaching defense or to think its second place to his offensive schemes is unfounded at best. This I know, UM was in the trench and couldn’t recruit a top 100 player when he came to UM….not the same today!!
    JB and his staff directed that change and no one else….. and he turns average players into great one’s through a teaching/coaching principle applied to fundamentally sound techniques. He does not always have the best talent or highest recruits on his team but at the end of the year his team can play with anyone in the country….someone on this board said that age and youth don’t matter…completely disagree. I don’t see many 20 year old college kids dominate in the NBA. OH there are a few but most have not grown into their bodies….look at THJ he’s mostly 30-50 pounds lighter than his competitor every night.
    This I know…its early and the kids will get better! Everyone seems to be hyped up by the slide in rankings and early losses. No better coach in the country for the youth and talent level than Mr. Beilein!
    Also agree…PG is the most important position on the floor let’s give it some time!

    • Kam

      Did you just say Tim is 30- 50 pounds lighter than his opponent?? WHAT? He is 205 a SG. That is totally false. for example dwade is 205, James harden is 210. kobe is also 210. There are no SGs 30-50 pounds heavier than Tim that start haha. Most players who weight 235-250 pounds are SFs and PFs. BUT JB is a great finder of talent

      • chazer

        I agree perhaps that was an exaggeration on my part…but he is rail thin compared to most of his opponents… 15-20 pounds lighter but mostly in the upper body…..I’ve watched parts of every Knick’s game (painful) and he’s not grown into his body yet compared to the men on the court. I question the 205 but its hard to say….watch a few games and let me know what you think regarding his size.

  • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

    It’s not like 30th is “good”… There are five teams ahead of Michigan in the Big Ten alone.

    The bigger concern to me is still on the offense… A mediocre offense on a Beilein team is more troubling than a mediocre defense. (Look at last year… a great offense with a mediocre defense ended up in the National Championship)

  • UMHoopsFan

    You are singlehandedly responsible for my decline in reading the comments on this site. It’s a disservice to Dylan and Joe. If you want to explain how this is misleading in any kind of reasoned way, fine. But all you provide is a burst of negativity. No thanks.

  • mikey_mac

    UM’s numbers are buoyed a bit by just how awful Charlotte was offensively. Otherwise, those numbers seem fair. They limit transition opps and show more ability than last year’s team at not breaking down in half-court D early in shot clocks.

  • Mattski

    Again, you’re ignoring Beilein’s achievements with far less talent through the years. Every system has its trade-offs, and the D this year actually shows some promise. I don’t think you mean to come off as negatively as you do, but your comments do sometimes serve as a serious buzzkill.

    As last year, Stauskas’s failures on the defensive end continue to stand out for me.

  • Adam St Patrick

    I would too, but that’s just not Beilein. He’s thought so much about offensive efficiency, and achieving it surely must take a considerable amount of practice time. Michigan plays like a team that practices its offense a lot more than it does its defense. I just hope that Beilein’s system getting smacked around a fair bit last year has underscored the need for, if not a defense-first approach, the need for more toughness and savvy. Some of his halftime and post-game comments last year indicated that he understands this very well.

  • guestavo

    Do we really know that? OSU’s best win is to unranked Marquette. They’ve just decided to shy away from scheduling Duke, Arizona, Iowa St of the world.

  • Vince from HK

    I would much rather you root for a team you like than being critical of the system, the coach, the regime, of a team and staff that brought us back to the brink of greatness after two decades of irrelevancy.

  • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

    Smacked around a bit last year? They lost one game by double digits and had a bad loss at Penn State and made the National Championship.

    Acting like Beilein doesn’t care about defense is foolish. Does he value offensive skill more when recruiting? That’s probably fair but it’s a lot easier to teach defense than offense in terms of player development.

  • DingoBlue

    Stauskas as a defensive liability really stand out when he’s on the floor with perimeter players like GRIII, Irvin, and Walton. (I’m leaving interior D/Big man D as separate)

  • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

    No that’s not what I’m implying and the OSU example is a bit foolish. That backcourt is extremely experienced and can’t score a lick. They are great defensively, yes, but are you implying Thad Matta can’t coach offense? (Foolish because he’s had some elite offenses). The bottom line is that there’s typically a trade off btw. offense and defense based on roster makeup etc. and there’s not necessarily a right answer.

  • Kam

    You can teach Defense all you want but the kids you’re teaching have to have the tools for them to become good at it. You could teach Nik and Spike 24/7 yet they’d never be great or good defenders they just don’t have the lateral quickness or length or size. Glenn, Caris, Irvin and walton all have the ability IMO to become good

  • http://www.umhoops.com/ Dylan Burkhardt

    I’m okay with making a point, even negative, but people have to learn to:

    1) Avoid personal attacks
    2) Not repeat yourself and respond to every comment in a thread. That’s trolling and it’s ridiculous. People can read your opinion once, they don’t need to read it 100 times.

  • Adam St Patrick

    My thought is that in the Kansas, Syracuse and Louisville games, Michigan does not win or would not have been competitive without three-point shots taken from 25 feet our or more. Same for the OSU win at home. The offense isn’t designed to get open looks from 25 feet out, because no offense is. But that’s what got us there. So that, to me, says something about the offense. I’m not saying it wasn’t a great year. It was, and save for Burke, Beilein was the person most responsible forthat. But nor do I think it was a great year precisely because the offense worked as intended.

    Nor did I say Beilein doesn’t care about defense. I’m saying that there’s a finite amount of time for practice, and to run an offense with such a low turnover rate probably reflects the degree to which practice time is allocated to that. It would only make sense — Beilein’s basic assumption about basketball is that “it’s a game of shots”, as he often says it. He explains that as “if we take more than shots than you we have a greater chance of winning”. So his top priority is to limit turnovers. You don’t achieve that by just telling them “don’t turn it over” and then moving on to focus on other things in practice. You only have so much time and have to prioritize what kind of team you want to be.

  • Adam St Patrick

    I think defense is more right than offense, and there’s always the adage that offense wins games and defense wins championships. Depending on you you slice it, Michigan’s season last year proves that or disproves it. I’m certainly going to be less adamant on a defense-first approach as long as Beilein proves me wrong, which he definitely did last year.

    What I WOULD like to see, however, is more toughness points. Michigan is more often the team that doesn’t get the loose balls, come up with the rebound out of a scrum, etc. It’s more often the team uncomfortable b/c its jumpers aren’t falling, and waits too long to dig in and grind one out. Again, my suspicion is that Beilein has seen this too, based on his halftime and postgame comments last year.

  • guestavo

    What about boxing out, not pressuring your man at half court or rotating over to help>

  • AlwaysBlue

    I’m not sure I agree with that. Much of defense is about desire and discipline. The Pistons were a great defensive team with two guards that were hardly great one-on-one defenders. But they understood the scheme and how to funnel guys into their strength. Of course they also hand checked a lot but that aside, there is not a reason that guys who found minutes on a team that played for a national championship can’t be decent defenders or schematically helped.

  • guestavo

    In the NCAAB, Offense > Defense. Guard play is the most important thing in college basketball imo.

  • guestavo

    Does the defensive metric take into account the SOS?

  • Kam

    I said they couldn’t become “good defenders” they can be average or passable!

  • Kam

    That should be easily corrected. Thats just a matter of want and discipline IMO