Four takeaways from Michigan’s non-conference season

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Mich vs Holy Cross_1
Scott Mapes

Michigan wrapped up its non-conference season on Saturday with a decisive victory over Holy Cross. However, the ease with which the Wolverines dispatched the Crusaders was far from indicative of their season to this point. Michigan played an extremely challenging schedule and came away with an 8-4 record, dropping all three of its truly marquee games (at Iowa State, at Duke, vs. Arizona) and one game it should have won (Charlotte). Michigan did get close wins over Florida State and more recently against Stanford at a neutral site, but this team remains a work in progress. We looked at some of the big-picture takeaways from the non-conference season and what they mean heading into Big Ten play.

The point guard position is still a question mark

Unfortunately, Derrick Walton has done little at this point to ease Michigan fans’ trepidation regarding the point guard situation. Walton is still getting his feet wet, and while it’s a safe bet that the freshman will eventually develop into a strong lead guard, he simply isn’t there just yet. Going into Big Ten play, Michigan is essentially splitting time between its two point guards — about 60-40 in favor of Walton in terms of minutes. Each option has their strengths and drawbacks. Walton is a better one-on-one defender than Spike Albrecht, though he is still working on his team defensive concepts (the Charlotte game comes to mind) and his ability to play well against high-level competition remains in doubt (think 14 minutes against Arizona). Offensively, Albrecht has the upper hand. He doesn’t turn the ball over nearly as often as Walton and his effective field goal percentage is much higher. There have also been times during the season when it has been obvious that the offense simply flows better with Albrecht on the court.

For the first time since Darius Morris’s freshman season, Michigan is without a true playmaker at the point guard spot. This means the offense will be leaning on the Wolverines’ perimeter scorers — Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert — as well as Glenn Robinson III. This has already proven to be the case, as Walton has played off the ball perhaps more than any other Michigan point guard since Stu Douglass. The offense is mostly in the hands of Stauskas and LeVert, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see LeVert play significantly more point guard in conference play.

Michigan must adjust to life without Mitch McGary

Losing Mitch McGary for an extended period of time, with the distinct possibility that he will be lost for the season, is a recent development for Michigan — but it’s not something the Wolverines are wholly unprepared to deal with. McGary didn’t play during the preseason and sat out four regular-season games before he was officially sidelined indefinitely. Not only that, but with his lower back condition looming over the coaching staff’s head since the offseason, the coaches have been forced to prepare for his absence.

Michigan is obviously a much better team with McGary on the court, but his being out indefinitely doesn’t necessarily mean the sky is falling. What does it mean? It means more playing time to be split between Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, and a likely rotation role for Max Bielfeldt in the likely event that one of those bigs finds himself in foul trouble. It also means the nature of the post will change in the Michigan offense — in that it will look much like it did before McGary’s emergence. John Beilein has repeatedly stressed that the coaching staff was preparing to play through McGary quite a bit this season given the sophomore’s versatility and passing ability. Instead, Michigan fans will likely see more of what they’re used to with Horford and Morgan. Horford will probably continue to see looks in isolation post-up situations, while Morgan will continue to be mostly a screen-and-roll man whose main objectives will be rebounding and finishing.

The key for Michigan’s two featured bigs will be to simply play their games and not get caught up in replacing McGary’s production. The final implication is that we have probably seen the last of Michigan’s two-big lineup. Small ball is here to stay and that means Glenn Robinson III and Zak Irvin will man the four position. Excluding the occasional extenuating circumstance, it seems there just isn’t enough offense on the court to justify it and the possible bump in rebounding would be marginal at best.

Glenn Robinson III is (hopefully) coming into his own

The offensive production of Glenn Robinson III throughout the non-conference season has been one of the most talked-about subjects in Michigan fandom. The sophomore struggled through much of the non-conference slate, especially against high-major opponents, before finding his way against Arizona. There’s no denying Michigan needs Robinson to produce. In its three losses outside the close call against Arizona, Robinson was mostly ineffective: against Iowa State, Robinson scored 12 points on just 3-of-9 shooting; against Charlotte, he only played nine minutes due to injury; against Duke at Cameron Indoor, Robinson managed only eight points and missed both his 3-point attempts. Since that loss, Robinson is averaging just over 19 points per game, including a 20-point effort against one of the best defensive teams in the country in Arizona.

But it’s not just the amount of points Robinson is scoring — it’s how he’s scoring them. Robinson appears to be getting more and more comfortable in the role of playmaker in the half court, displaying an ability to drive one-on-one and finish at the rim. Part of Robinson’s early troubles can be attributed to a shift in his method of scoring. As Dylan illuminated earlier in the season, Robinson’s shot attempts at the rim have dropped precipitously since last season, and without Trey Burke feeding him looks, he has been forced to find different ways to score. Undoubtedly one of the most effective ways to get Robinson going is in transition. Though his field goal percentage in transition isn’t appreciably better than his percentage in the half court, it is obviously where Robinson is most comfortable. If Robinson can keep up his play of the past three games on a consistent basis in Big Ten play, Michigan will be in good shape.

Transition defense still needs work

This may be one of the more alarming realities about this Michigan team — the Wolverines simply aren’t good at defending in transition. Take this final offensive possession for Stanford in Brooklyn as a perfect example. That should just never happen. The troubling aspect of this issue is that it appears to be getting worse. Earlier this season, Dylan studied what was ailing Michigan’s defense. At the top of the list was poor transition defense. At the time, teams were shooting an effective 63.2 percent in transition against Michigan — that number has since climbed to 66 percent. Needless to say, this is not a promising trend.

Traditionally, Michigan’s effective field goal percentage in transition allowed has hovered around 54 percent. So fans can hope for a progression to the mean in that sense. However, this is an area where losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. may have an underrated effect. The loss of Michigan’s two most effective players on offense means more missed shots and more opportunities for Michigan’s opponents to get out and run. Back in September, we did a pretty extensive study on the correlation between offensive rebounding and transition defense and concluded that there isn’t much there. However, we also concluded that it would be on Michigan’s wings to curtail some of the problems in transition defense that the loss of Burke and Hardaway were sure to expose. This hasn’t happened yet. Transition defense is probably the most pressing defensive issue Michigan must address heading into Big Ten play.

  • mikey_mac

    GR3 is now the most important player on the team, and it’s not close.

    Happy New Year, everyone!

  • Mattski

    If Walton isn’t doing the play-making should he be on the court? Has Caris been given enough opportunity at the point? Would be interested in the opinions of those who have watched closely. Just seems so enticing to have a tall like him at the point, but maybe in the rigors of Big Ten play. . . ?

    • The thing that people forget with that ‘Caris at the PG’ debate is that Caris is playing 80% of available minutes, Stauskas 77%, Robinson 77%.

      The option would be to play Irvin (40%) significantly more minutes but Walton (61%) and Alrbecht (41%) pretty much have to be in the rotation because there aren’t any other bodies.

      • Mattski

        Thanks for the answers; I had no idea Caris was seeing so much PT already.

        • Mattski

          This look at the Big Ten going into conference play might interest people; fairly comprehensive, interesting. If you find it worthy and want to dump this post and include it in one of your articles, Dylan/Joe, go ahead:

          http://www.cbssports.com/collegebasketball/eye-on-college-basketball/24393238/conference-reset-the-big-ten-could-go-four-different-ways

          • rlcBlue

            I pretty much agree with his take; the B1G has three tiers this year: Lower – Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue; Middle – Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan; Upper – Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan State.

            All of the middle tier teams should be candidates for at large NCAA bids; all the top tier teams should be seeded into the round of 16.

            Purdue looks like the strongest threat to break into the middle tier. If Minnesota drops back to the bottom tier, Pitino will certainly be forgiven, but if Indiana does there will be pitchforks shaken angrily by Hoosier fans. Iowa and its coach have no experience competing for a B1G title, but with a few lucky bounces they’ll be there; still, they’re the most likely team to drop out of the top tier.

            My heart says Michigan will move into the top tier, but my head disagrees. I expect they’ll be the #5 seed in the BTT and that the #4 seed will be unhappy about that.

    • Dr_ZC

      I would only guess that the reason Walton is on the court, is to get a good feeling of the offense. However, even with Caris playing the point with Walton playing the off guard, our offense was pretty much set on Caris’ creativity to take his man to the hoop one-on-one, rather than creatively pass the ball for the assist. I feel that Spike and Nik are doing better in the assist area, than Walton and Caris. I like the way Walton defends and drives to the hoop, but I would like to see more assists when he drives and less outside shots.

      Another thing that I want to see, is Irvin driving and slashing to the basket. He has too much talent to be delegated to a spot-up shooter. If he does not have it, it is brick city.

    • mazs

      Walton and Spike will simply have to make the point work. Caris is a wing by style and forcing him to play the point will take away what he provides and not help at the point. Caris’ best offensive weapon is his ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. However, when he does so, he almost always has his head down and, hence, doesn’t do a good job of finding open shooters.

  • Dr_ZC

    Not sure if this is pointed out already, but every time Spike dribbles the ball, he reminds me of the short haired bench guy in the Hoosiers movie, who bounced the ball off his foot when he was put in the game (yes the guy who made the underhand foul shot to win the game). What also surprises me, is that JB trusts Spike with his life, even though he preaches passing with both hands. The only time I see Spike handling the ball with two hands, is when he shoots. I guess it is safe to say that the chances of Spike killing his dribble are close to zero.

  • Fraaqman

    Spike has 32 assists to Walton’s 33 and only 8 turnovers to Walton’s 25 while playing nearly 100 less minutes. While Derrick is probably a more athletic defender than Spike, Spike is more familiar with the system. I’d play Spike more minutes until Derrick starts to show marked improvement.

  • guestavo

    Spike/Nik are our best options THIS YEAR. After our two teenagers get a full year of reps learning how to read defenses and make the correct play then this won’t be close.

  • ChathaM

    In a broad sense, my main takeaway from the non-con schedule is that it’s far better to have played this schedule than it would have been to play a weaker slate. A weaker schedule would have been more the norm for a team this young, but I think the team will benefit a lot in the conference season from playing the heavyweights they did before Christmas. Had there only been one marquee game in the non-con season, then the team’s (and individual players’) weaknesses wouldn’t be nearly as clear as they are now. Sure, the team would have a better record, and would likely be ranked in the top 25 (if you care about things like that). But, hopefully, losing steam at Iowa State, getting overwhelmed by the Duke environment, and battling Arizona to the wire will combine to prepare the team for whatever they’ll face in the Big Ten. Maybe that translates to hanging onto a late lead at Indiana, or being able to get over the hump at home against MSU, as examples.