First Look: Transition game, ball screens critical in Michigan-Iowa matchup

Dylan Burkhardt
Michigan Wisconsin-16Michigan hosts Iowa on Wednesday evening in its second of three  consecutive conference games against top ten opponents. The Hawkeyes travel to Ann Arbor with a top ten ranking for the first time since 2002 and are flying high after three straight league wins, including a big win at Ohio State. (Photo: Chris Smith)

The match-up is a battle of statistical extremes.

The Hawkeyes are one of the deepest and tallest teams in the country. Iowa ranks 15th in bench minutes, relying on an 11 man rotation, and 4th in average height nationally. While the Hawkeyes give 41.4% of available minutes to their bench, Michigan’s bench plays just 29.1% of available minutes. The Wolverines also prefer small ball, starting a 6-foot-6 power forward and only having two active big men 6-foot-8 or taller.

But the differences between the two squads are more than superficial. Both teams want to play very different styles of basketball. For Iowa, that means pushing the tempo.

Transition game

Iowa averages 72.9 possessions per game, 13th nationally, and 72 possessions per game in the Big Ten. Those are tempo numbers rarely seen in the more methodical Big Ten, and the Hawkeyes average just 14.3 seconds per offensive possession.

Michigan averages just 64 possessions per game, 309th nationally, and 61.6 possessions per game in Big Ten play. The Wolverines want to slow the game down, especially on defense, but can be effective when their offense pushes the pace.

The Hawkeyes score 1.165 per transition possession and are the most productive transition offense in the conference. Iowa pushes the ball more often than any team in the conference other than Michigan State, but is able to do so with impressive efficiency. Michigan is the only conference team markedly more efficient than the Hawkeyes in transition, but roughly 5% less of its offensive possessions are in transition.


The Hawkeyes transition effort is spearheaded by Iowa’s 6-foot-9 wing forwards Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff. Uthoff and White are two of the conference’s five most effective transition finishers. They have size, run the floor well, and don’t miss many shots at the bucket. They both have size advantages over Glenn Robinson III at the four spot, and potentially Nik Stauskas at the three.


Iowa’s transition success is troubling news to the Wolverines because Michigan’s has one of the worst transition defenses in the country.

The following scatterplot shows the percent of defensive possessions in transition (x-axis) allowed and the points allowed per transition possession (y-axis). The best defenses – fewest points allowed, fewest possessions allowed – are in the upper-right quadrant.


The Wolverines allow the fewest transition possessions per game in the Big Ten but do the worst job of stopping them. If 20 to 25 percent of Iowa’s offensive possessions are in transition against Michigan, which could spell major difficulty for a Wolverine defense that usually allows just 12.3% of its defensive possessions in transition. If Michigan can keep that number under 15% for the game, it will be in a much better space defensively.

For that reason, expect the Wolverines to continue to be very conservative on the offensive glass, focusing more on getting back on defense than securing an extra possession.

Ball screens

Michigan butchered Wisconsin with ball screen after ball screen at the Kohl Center for its best road win in program history. 42% of Michigan’s possessions against the Badgers were ball screens, and the Wolverines were very effective knocking down mid-range shots available from Wisconsin’s conservative defensive approach.

That was no major surprise as the Wolverines are the best ball screen team in the Big Ten, despite losing Trey Burke to the NBA.


Only Illinois runs more ball screens than Michigan and no one is nearly as efficient. The Wolverines have three of the top-12 ball screen players in the league in Nik Stauskas (No. 2), Spike Albrecht (No. 5) and Caris LeVert (No. 12), and John Beilein gives his players plenty of freedom with the ball in their hands.

The bad news for the Wolverines is that Iowa touts one of the best ball screen defenses in the Big Ten. Similar to the defensive scatterplot above, the following graph shows percent of ball screen possessions defended against points allowed per ball screen. The best ball screen defenses are in the upper-right quadrant of the graph.


Iowa and Northwestern are the best teams at defending ball screens – by a wide margin.

A big reason for that success is Iowa’s ability to take away the ball handlers’ offense. There are only two teams that are more effective at taking away the dribblers’ offense in the pick-and-roll game, Arkansas and Virginia. Iowa has the luxury of having 6-foot-6 senior Devyn Marble guarding ball screens, which can make it more difficult for guards to shoot, get to the basket, or pass over the top.

Iowa surrenders just .545 points per possession to the ball handler. For comparison, Nik Stauskas usually scores .821 points per ball screen shot and Caris LeVert usually scores .963 points per ball screen shot.

Other notables

  • Iowa plays zone defense on 30% of its defensive possessions. The Hawkeyes are a very good zone defensive team, but Michigan is among the best zone offenses in the country. The Wolverines are scoring 1.30 points per possession against zone defenses, good for the 99th percentile nationally.
  • Return of the shooter. Josh Oglesby shot just 27% on 3-pointers last season but since he returned on December 22nd, he’s 12-of-20 from long range including a 5-of-7 effort against Minnesota.
  • Iowa’s Gabriel Olaseni and Melsahn Basabe rank 3rd and 5th in the Big Ten in points scored off of putbacks. Both players should provide a challenge for on the glass for Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, Michigan’s big men that have exceeded expectations with Mitch McGary sidelined.
  • Kruser

    These charts are fantastic!…..Do you get these from somewhere else or do you create them yourself?

    • The data is from Synergy Sports, but I created the charts.

  • gobluemd16

    Iowa just felt like the worst matchup for Michigan in this three game stretch due to their length and transition game, and this piece proves it. Luckily this one will be at home

    • The big key is that the game is in Crisler.

      • Russ

        Still cant believe Michigan is ony 1.5 point favorites over Iowa at home. Just saying…

    • Dion Harris

      I believe Iowa is the favorite to win the B1G. This game worries me.

  • Kenny

    We need to control the tempo, have an efficient offense, and hope that they missed some shot in transition. I think that transition defense should be aggressive and go for the ball.

  • Mattski

    “take away the ball handlers’ offense” — not too sure what this bit of jargon means –disrupt so they cannot pass or get a shot off?

    • Two outcomes: ball handles’ offense vs. roll man’s offense.

      Some teams take the roll man away very well, some teams make it very hard for the ball handler to get a good shot off. Iowa is top class at taking away the ball handler and good (but not as good) at eliminating the roll man.

  • gobluemd16

    Meanwhile, Ohio is reeling badly. I’ve gotta think we have a better resume than them at this point. They really haven’t beaten a single good team.

    • Dr_ZC

      Funny how things work. Ohio had a great 2 last minutes against ND and won the game. They were one missed bunny away from completing their comeback at Breslin against MSU, who looked very tough to beat… And then they …splat, unable to bounce for 4 games. These late comeback attempts must have taken all the life away from them.

    • BlueBear_E

      As of right now, it looks like we have a decent shot at winning all four of our single-play games this season. Believe we have already won three, and the the fourth is @ a reeling OSU. They are talented enough to change the course of their season, but do not appear to be as challenging we thought going into the B1G season.

      If we can protect home court or even limit the home loses to one, (probably senior night if the trend continues) we will be in a great position in March. We already have three road wins and I think we will get two or possibly three more. I’m speaking way too soon, but a B1G road record of 5-4 or 6-3 would be pretty nice. Could this be a 14-4 conference team if a few key plays go our way?

  • UMHoopsFan

    Great write up. I generally like matchups for UM where the other team wants to get up and down. As the charts show, we are by far the best in the B1G in PPP in transition opportunities and also the best at preventing transition opportunities for others. I will take Nik, Glenn, et al in the open floor against Marble, White, et al. It will be a challenge, no doubt — particularly finding their 3-pt shooters in transition. But we will get our opportunities too.
    The ball-screen stats worry me a bit more. Some of it has to do with who they’ve played, I think, but being tall and having mobile 4’s and shot-blockers is probably helping. I’m sure Dylan or Joe will explore this, but I’d be interested in how Iowa defends the P&R. Nik, in particular, but Caris more and more, are very good at finding the roll man in the offense and shooting those mid-range jumpers.

  • Michigan4

    I really don’t think Iowa is that big of a mismatch for UM. In my opinion, the teams that give UM trouble are those that have 4 men that play on the block (Ejim from ISU, White from FSU, Ashley from Arizona). I know both teams are very different from last year but I like the majority of the match ups for UM in this one. I think Robinson, LeVert and Stauskas will all have big games.

  • jemblue

    I’m always surprised at how slow our pace is according to the statistics. We don’t seem like a slow-paced team. I wonder how much of it is due to the fact that we don’t shoot that many free throws, nor do we commit that many fouls.

    • guestavo

      Most slow paced teams don’t score very efficiently and we obviously do.

      • jemblue

        But beyond that, it doesn’t seem like our possessions take much longer than a typical team’s. It’s not like we’re constantly in danger of shot-clock violations. We get out and run quite often. So I’m wondering if our low foul rate (at both ends of the court) reduces the total number of possessions available.

        • UMHoopsFan

          I think the foul rate is a factor. Another three things that factor in: (1) We don’t turn the ball much or crash the glass, reducing other teams’ transition opportunities. In other words, the teams we play have longer possessions than their average because we don’t let them run much. (2) We run action that takes a while to develop and often don’t go for quick shots if there’s no transition opportunities. In other words, we probably shoot more shots with 10-15 seconds left on the shot clock vs 15-20 seconds than many teams. (3) Our offense generally has a lot of motion and movement. Thus, even a fairly long possession of ours doesn’t seem as long as some teams who take the air out of the ball as a strategy.

          • guest

            Completely agree with the above. I would think the biggest factor would have to do with fewer shortened possessions from TO’s or fouls on both ends of the court.
            Does anyone know how offensive rebounds play a factor? For example, is it possible to have a possession longer than 35 seconds? If it is possible, im guessing a low offensive rebounding rate and high defensive rebounding rate plays a factor too.

          • An offensive rebound qualifies as the same possession. (Possessions are calculated as: FGA+TO – Off. Reb + .475 * FTA)

  • Go Hawks!

    Very nice write up and comments. Congrats on the season so far and best of luck to the Wolverines this evening.

    Iowa’s pace is fun to watch. I’m no expert – just a fan. I think the key factors tonight will be Iowa’s length and depth versus home court at Crisler and Michigan’s success outside the arc. Stauskas and Robinson have taken advantage of size mismatches that won’t be there tonight. I’m concerned that if Michigan makes a few threes early it’ll open up the lane for penetration and Woodbury may end up in foul trouble. That’s not all bad though as Basabe and Olesani are a better matchup against Horford. Lastly, I’m hopeful for a fairly officiated game that seems to be pretty rare for visiting teams in the Big Ten this year.