Poor defense down the stretch dooms Wolverines

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Michigan 70, Arizona 72-21Early on in his post-game press conference, John Beilein was asked about Arizona’s defense — how the length of the Wildcats forced Michigan to work for every shot in the 72-70 loss at the Crisler Center on Saturday. (Photo: Dustin Johnston)

Beilein acknowledged it was at times difficult to find openings, but said one thing definitively.

“Offense was not the issue,” the coach said.

He’s right. The offense was quite good: Michigan scored 1.16 points per possession for the game, registered an effective field goal percentage of 58.6 and even got to the line with more consistency than Arizona. It was the defense that came up short at crucial points and allowed the Wolverines to give away a 58-50 lead with eight minutes to go.

This is a major divergence from the narrative of Michigan’s losses to this point. Against Charlotte, the Wolverines registered a paltry 0.86 points per possession and a dismal 35.2 effective field goal percentage on their way to a close loss; versus Iowa State, Michigan was held to below one point per possession; finally, in their loss to Duke the Wolverines registered the same per-possession output as they did against Charlotte when the scoring over the final nine possessions is excluded from the data. Suffice to say, so far this season, it’s been offensive, not defensive woes that have plagued Michigan. On Saturday, the loss was largely the result of poor defense.

Arizona scored on its final 11 possessions, an achievement that brought the Wildcats’ final points per possession number to 1.19 — the highest number Michigan has allowed this season. It was essentially the stretch that decided the game. After the jump we look at video of Arizona’s possessions from Michigan’s 58-50 lead until Mitch McGary’s foul with 25 seconds left on the clock and examine what went wrong.

Arizona had two back-breaking offensive rebounds to extend possessions but Michigan’s ball screen defense struggled down the stretch. The Wolverines stopped hard hedging ball screens and Arizona made them pay with their ball movement. In the first half, Michigan mostly hedged hard with its bigs and switched one through four. Down the stretch, Michigan’s ball screen defense was plagued by mental errors and confusion.

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On the first possession in this clip (pictured above), after Michigan hits the ball out of bounds, we can see Horford not really hedge on the high screen as he allows Arizona to rotate the ball in rhythm. Michigan ends up getting burned when Caris LeVert provides help defense, Glenn Robinson III doesn’t provide his help and Aaron Gordon is open underneath.

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On the play after that (above), Glenn Robinson III and Derrick Walton both stick with Walton’s man after the ball screen and leave Brandon Ashley wide open for a jumper. This seems like a communication where Walton expected a hedge and Robinson expected a switch.

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After a strong move an assist in the post on the third possession, Arizona goes back to the ball screen on possession number four (above). Robinson and Albrecht switch the ball screen but McGary and Albrecht don’t communicate and both players chase Brandon Ashley to the high post, leaving Aaron Gordon open for an easy basket despite Caris LeVert’s late help defense.

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On the next play (above), the lack of a hedge was especially pertinent. With Robinson on the ball, McGary elects to essentially give TJ McConnell the edge, allowing once again for easy ball rotation.

After the game, Jon Horford stressed the need for tougher defense, especially in a game that was so winnable in the final stretch with just a few stops.

“I feel like it’s not offense — it’s defensive toughness without a doubt,” Horford said. “It’s just getting stops when you need to get stops. It’s something we emphasize every day in practice, but going forward we’re going to have to get even tougher. We’re going to have to put more of an emphasis on practice, we’re going to have to make practices more competitive. We’re going to have to put more of an emphasis on those stops and not feeling content or complacent with having an eight point lead with eight minutes left. Because we’re already up. Technically, all we need to do is get stops to end the game. So it’s all about the defense.”

Glenn Robinson III, a player whose offensive explosion was overshadowed by failures in team defense, agreed.

“At close-out time we just have to learn to close out, you know?” the sophomore lamented. “We needed just one stop. They have a good team, and give credit to them. It was hard to get that last stop in the last three minutes.”

The numbers say the Michigan’s defense wasn’t bad for the whole game, just the second half. But in this case, it appears the numbers could be just a tad dishonest. It’s true that Michigan held Arizona to just 0.90 points per possession in the first half, but this was due in a large part to the Wildcats’ inability to make putbacks off offensive rebounds. Really, in the second half, Arizona just started making them.

For the game, the Wildcats corralled 48 percent of their misses — about their season average. In the first half, when Michigan was supposedly playing significantly better defense, Arizona rebounded 49.2 percent of its misses but made only 33 percent of its twos, a large number of them missed layups coming from offensive rebounds.

Defensive rebounding is a big part of a successful defense, and no matter how you slice it, Michigan had an abysmal day on the defensive glass on Saturday. Nik Stauskas said at times Michigan turned the rebounding battle into a “jumping contest.”

“For the most part this season, our coaches said, we were leading the Big Ten in not letting opposing teams get offensive rebounds,” Stauskas said. “Today, they had so much size in the frontcourt. We were doing the best we could, but we can’t make it a jumping contest. When they have length like that, we have to make sure that we hit them and box them out.”

The continued lack of boxing out, combined with Arizona’s rediscovered ability to make shots in the paint, spelled doom for Michigan. The Wolverines couldn’t rebound for most of the game, and couldn’t stop the Wildcats in their half-court offense to close it out. Beilein went to the “sixty-six” lineup very late and even showed some 1-3-1 in an attempt to throw Arizona off, all to no avail.

Michigan has had its share of issues this season — every step forward appears to be accompanied by a step back. On Saturday, the Wolverines took a big step forward on offense against one of the best defensive teams in the country. But in the end, as Beilein said, it came down to defense.

“It was all about our defense late” Beilein said. “We’ve got to continue to get better angles, we’ve got to defend so that people don’t get the ball in their sweet spots, because they got the ball in their sweet spots way too much. So we went with that ‘sixty-six’ lineup there to try to switch a lot of things late. Turned out, it worked really well — we got a stop, and they went to the foul line. We didn’t get a chance to do it enough. But it’s what we do, it’s what all our coaches love doing. Going from this hurdle over the next hurdle. There’s plenty of things to grow from.”

  • Wayman Britt

    Good analysis Joe. Playing soft on defense and not wanting to body a person has been a problem for UM for the last two years. But, UM will get a chance to show the world that they are a tough team when the meet MSU, OSU and UW, because we all know those teams will punch you in the mouth. We UM be ready?

    • guestavo

      MSU is actually soft this year.

      • Adam St Patrick

        It’s an Izzo team. If that’s true it’ll be the first time in his career. We’ll see. I’m certainly not looking forward to getting punked in EL again, surviving a close one in Crisler, and considering it a split.

  • Chris De Sana

    I count 3 extra possessions when you count the ball out of bounds after the first missed put back by their center. That and only one basket from more than 5 ft away from the rim.

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

      Yeah I counted the Kaleb putback/miss/scrum/out of bounds as one extra possession. Technically it’s really two I guess.

  • Chris De Sana

    So the question is will they go to the sixty-six more often and will they explore the 2 big more in the future when playing against teams with length?

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

      I understand the 6-6 lineup, although the fact that they only trust Zak to play 5 minutes is troubling.

      But playing two bigs isn’t going to really help with a lot of these breakdowns… That just means you have to hedge more ball screens (can’t switch with Jordan or Mitch at the four) and Michigan was already have trouble with Ashley, Gordon taking its bigs off the dribble. What is putting another big on the floor going to accomplish? It’s certainly going to hurt the offense.

      • Chris De Sana

        Zak only getting 5 minutes when coach has often said he may be our best on ball defender, and his shot seems to have come around. As for the 2 big line up do you not think it would have helped in those cases that Nik spoke of, the jumping competitions?

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

    The last time I can remember that many consecutive mistakes in ball screen defense was at Penn State last year. Difference there was that PSU was shooting threes instead of layups. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=a9VTK9mtVrQ

  • gobluemd16

    The best chance to get the defensive rebound, although we should have gotten a couple of them, was on the last possession when McConnell got the board. Caris just watched the damn shot and McConnell slipped in for the rebound. That shouldn’t happen, ever. Then the poor call against McGary later in the possession, although who is to say we would have stopped them anyways. This loss just still feels so rough

    • ChathaM

      For me, that sequence was the worst. Caris neither challenged the shot nor made any attempt to box out McConnell. He basically watched the entire play. Horrible.

  • Chris De Sana
    • guestavo

      Zimmerman mentioned his top 5 visits, we were not one of them, neither have we registered with any other bigmen of high ranking. Even more troubling, analyst are crystal balling Coleman, Davis and Brunson to MSU.

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

        Coleman and Brunson aren’t close to making decisions. Michigan is in a strong spot with both of them but still a *very* long way to go. It’s not like people are crystal balling things a week before they are supposed to decide. Not to mention, I would be shocked if all three of those kids went to the same school. Davis, for one, really wants to play point guard and Brunson *is* a point guard.

        • guestavo

          I hear you but where there is smoke there’s fire. Something to keep an eye on.

  • ChathaM

    That was really good stuff, Joe. Thanks.

    It amazes me how often we hear quotes from UM players about needing to box out, then watch so many of them continually not attempt to box out. That makes no sense to me.

  • guestavo

    We’ll see if it “the offense is fine” and it’s all defense when we play Stanford. Another bad game by Walton and I wonder how the narrative will shift yet again.

  • Andrew

    Thank you for putting this together. I was whining about the ball screen defense right away. It was one of those times when it was egregious enough to notice just watching the damn game live. It’s irritating because the coaches need to get them doing one thing and doing it well. If it’s hard hedge, hard hedge, or making that shift sooner. It’s also really on the players to communicate and want to defend in that situation. Offense is much more about skill than defense, which often comes down to effort and mental toughness. Oh well.

  • Mattski

    I’m usually the first to leap to these guys’ defense, but we collapsed down the stretch.

  • guestavo

    Chatman.

  • Kam

    The other kid too gosh i cant think of his name idk why. He is 6’8 extremely long and lanky. if he added weight he’d help too

  • guestavo

    Either way, those guards have not been mentioned with us. Zimmerman has stated his top 5 visits and his stepmom has never mentioned us on twitter. Are we going to continue to be delusional or see the writing on the wall? We get burned in 2015 and it won’t end well.

  • guestavo

    6’7” with long arms and a father who is 6’9”. I think we’ll be okay. Seems like a Draymond Green type which is perfect.

  • Kam

    i agree I’m a big caris fan but he seems to get caught watching on defense.. I don’t think he is lazy. Just needs to play both sides

  • Adam St Patrick

    It’s last year’s team minus Nix. We’ll see what they are in March.

  • guestavo

    DJ Wilson

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

    I agree to an extent but the Crystal Ball serves its purpose IMO. It definitely portrays the national opinion at the time and people are encouraged to predict early and often to ‘tell the story’ of a recruitment, so to speak. Conceptually I like it, but people all understand it differently.