Mailbag: Zone Defense, Austin Hatch, Schedule & More

Dylan Burkhardt
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The UM Hoops Mailbag is a collection of questions tweeted (@umhoops), e-mailed or sent via our Facebook page. Submit your questions and we’ll answer as many as we can. (Photo: Dustin Johnston)

@skurnie: How much 1-3-1 zone will we see this season? Lots of length and youth

Every year it seems like I write that this is going to be the year where John Beilein dusts off the 1-3-1 zone and it is effective. And then seemingly every year the 1-3-1 zone rarely works and gets scrapped midway through the season.

Over the last couple years, Michigan has generally scrapped the 1-3-1 zone by Christmas and even when it experiments with a zone defense in Big Ten play, it has usually gone with the more conservative 2-3 variety.

Michigan has a lot of length to play with. Putting Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin, Kameron Chatman and DJ Wilson on the floor at once should make a formidable zone group, at least on paper. On the other hand, Michigan’s roster is so young that the coaching staff might not be able to implement a zone package while still trying to bring the man-to-man defense up to speed. Rebounding out of the 1-3-1 zone is also much more challenging as it requires the center to be pulled further from the basket and eliminates man-to-man box out responsibilities.

I’m sure we’ll see the zone from time-to-time, but Beilein has proven over the last few years that he won’t stick with it if it doesn’t work. 

@Reid20B:  With new B1G scheduling, how does Michigan’s schedule shake out compared to others vying for B1G Championship?

The Big Ten is difficult to sort out at this point beyond the fact that Wisconsin is the unanimous favorite and the next seven or eight teams are pretty good, but have major questions to answer.

Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State are probably the most realistic ‘second tier’ (with Ohio State best among those three by my eyes), but there are seven more teams (Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue) that are projected as top-40 national teams by Ken Pomeroy’s trusted computers.

The Badgers not only are the unanimous best team, they also only play Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State once. Did I mention they are the favorites?

Michigan’s schedule is somewhere in the middle, but probably leans to the easier side. The Wolverines only play Wisconsin once, at home, but do have double-plays against Michigan State and Ohio State. Among that next tier of teams, Michigan only plays Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota and Purdue once.  The Wolverines also play Rutgers and Northwestern, the most likely bottom-feeders of the conference, twice.

Overall I would say the Wolverines have a favorable schedule, but the bottom line is that with so many teams in the conference it’s going to be difficult to sort things out with such unbalanced schedules.

Michigan 86, Wayne State 43-30

@cdbarker: Austin Hatch doesn’t want to just be a “cool story” by the time he leaves Michigan…Is it too early to know his new ceiling?

It’s still far too early and at this point it’s impossible to put any ceiling on Austin Hatch. It’s only a matter of time before he breaks through it. The amount of progress that he’s made during the three years since the plane crash has already been incredible, beyond what many would have deemed possible or likely. He deserves all of the time in the world to grow, but at this point how could you bet against him?

@Smoothitron: Michigan has had no shortage of early entry candidates. Other than Caris, who on the roster could make that leap?

I’ll go with Zak Irvin. He’s got a great frame and prototypical size for a wing guard in the NBA. His athletic improvement looks to be the real deal and I expect he’ll put up monster numbers this season because of his ability to get his shot off so easily. That being said, I’d still be somewhat surprised if anyone other than LeVert is discussing leaving school after this season. (I might have said the same thing about Nik Stauskas at this point last year.)

@jlustig22: Do you expect Walton’s assist numbers to rise a lot this year? Would you be surprised if LeVert actually led the team in assists?

I think Walton making a big jump in the assist category would be great news for Michigan and he’s certainly capable, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if LeVert leads the team in assists.

Monday’s exhibition game was just a first taste, but LeVert looked more comfortable as Michigan’s primary ball screen player and creator. He was throwing drop off passes, holding the ball in late clock situations and he could easily play a Nik Stauskas role as a distributor.

@losfromcp: Which need is more imperative: 1) Big 3 (Levert, Walton, Irvin) to come up big, or 2) Young frontcourt to develop quickly?

This is a bit of a trick question.

The ‘big three’ of LeVert, Walton and Irvin are the most important part of the team. Michigan is going to be carried as far as its backcourt can take it. If one or two of the big three struggle or get injured, then the Wolverines are going to be in trouble this season. Right now, there’s no reason to believe that the ‘big three’ won’t get it done. They’re all fairly proven and they should be one of the better backcourts in the Big Ten.

On the other hand, the frontcourt is an out-and-out question mark. No one knows what to expect from the bigs or even who is going to play the majority of the minutes. If Michigan’s young bigs can’t get it done then it might not matter how good LeVert, Irvin and Walton perform. So I’ll go with the big three, but only because I have more confidence in the backcourt.

@colintj: What odds would you lay that this team finishes lower in KenPom than the previous four?

Michigan finished 26th, 23rd, 4th and 10th in KenPom’s final rankings over the last four seasons and if I had to put an over/under on Michigan’s final ranking this season I’d probably set it around 25.

On paper at this point, this team has a lot of similarities to those 2011 and 2012 teams. This group will experience some growing pains along the way, but could peak playing its best basketball by February and March.

@WolverineWay: What in your opinion will be the strength and weakness of #Squad99 ??

The weakness of this team is going to be up front, especially on the glass. The million dollar question will be how well can the Wolverines clean up the defensive glass and they are going to need players like Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, Caris LeVert and Kam Chatman to all chip in.

The strength of this group has to be the backcourt. LeVert could be the best guard in the Big Ten this season and Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin are both poised for big years.

  • MrLG

    It’s certainly possible that Kam Chatman will be a one and done.

    Less likely, but still possible, is DJ Wilson. If he breaks out in a few games, an NBA team would be willing to take a chance on his potential. Just look at what Noah Vonleh actually accomplished and yet was drafted in the top 10.

    • Mattski

      Two and done, possibly. One and done for either of them would shock me.

    • I don’t think DJ Wilson will get the usage on this team to showcase himself enough to be a one-and-done. Only recent freshmen I can think of who left (and went in the 1st) after one year and weren’t full-time, high usage starters are Daniel Orton and Marvin Williams. Both of those guys were top-20 recruits out of HS.

    • UMHoopsFan

      Noah Vonleh was a top-10 recruit who put up nearly a double-double, quite efficiently, including from 3 pt range, even though nobody would pass him the ball, and was one of the best shotblockers in the conference to boot. Just because IU was lousy it doesn’t mean Vonleh was.

    • MChem83

      Bigs who aren’t highly touted coming in end up leaving after one or two years pretty much never. Wilson is almost certainly a four year guy. Not to say he won’t be good or that he couldn’t eventually get drafted, but early departures are pretty much always studs from the get-go.

  • mikey_mac

    I for one am hoping the 1-3-1 is more or less permanently retired. It’s not very well equipped to deal with modern offensive systems that emphasize spacing, rim looks and corner 3s.
    This team though does look physically capable of a zone look now and then, so if Beilein gets this team that far along defensively (i.e. adequate at man-to-man), I hope he focuses on the 2-3. Based on early indications, we may be stuck with just man-to-man for now.

    • Mattski

      I think that it’s great to have in the arsenal; it has saved the team’s bacon a few times recently, no? I don’t think Beilein’s in any way romantic about it, but I would love to see a team that could mix up its Ds proficiently, maybe by next year, with occasional use of the 1-3-1, too.

      • mirepoix

        Exactly how I feel about it.

      • mikey_mac

        It’s sometimes hard to tell which type of zone UM is throwing out, since they do it for maybe 2-3 possessions when are forced to go to it, but the 1-3-1 has really been ineffective on a PPP basis. It’s basically a Hail Mary at this point.

    • I’m a fan of the 1-3-1 mostly because I hated it so much playing against it, but mikey gets it right, the spacing and offensive systems designed to free up the corner 3 make it problematic. We have the length to make it an interesting idea, but you for sure better be running it the right way.

  • gobluemd16

    I doubt we see the 1-3-1 much, but if we have serious rebounding troubles, why not try it? Our length is well documented and generating a greater number of turnovers could be a huge benefit if we are having troubles cleaning up on the boards as is.

  • jakerblue

    the timing of the B1G schedule at least looks like the team has a little bit of time to coalesce, as the tough stretch doesn’t seem to really start until the Jan. 24 game against Wisconsin

  • J-Smoove

    Cant wait to get this season going this may be Beilein’s most exciting team due to the fact there is a lot of young dudes and we don’t know how well they’ll play this year. All I know is that in Levert we trust. GO BLUE!

  • A2MIKE

    Dylan,
    Am I overthinking this? I think this team will be a sweet 16 seed come March. I feel like Doyle and Wilson will come along enough over the course of the season to be a formidable 1-2 punch and Donnal could be pushed out of the picture. I also think by season’s end this will be Beilein’s best defensive team at Michigan on a PPP basis. For the first time in Beilein’s tenure at Michigan, we have above average defenders at the 1-3 positions. As long as the offense doesn’t fall off a cliff, I see us being very formidable in the tournament and wouldn’t be surprised if we were a sweet 16 seed that makes a lot of noise and has a realistic shot to win it all. We have the main recipe as long as you are not Kentucky, in that we will have an experienced backcourt with what I expect to be a top 50 defense and a top 25 offense.

    • Vince

      I like your optimism. I just see it differently:

      Defense – our defense the last two years were really anchored by JMo and the drop off with frost bigs are way too steep to overcome with marginally better on ball defense in our guard and wings. The key to defense would be how fast and how accurately everyone rotates and sound decisions to help or not help on penetration. From limited sample I see us way behind even the 2012 team. We should improve a long the season but it seems many of us is underestimating the struggle on defense and defensive rebounding.

      Offense – I would be more confident if I saw from progress from Walton but thus far with limited samples he some ways off to be a consistent creator with the ball. Last year when teams keyed on Staukaus we had Levert to share the load and bail us out in late clock situations. With Levert the primary playmaker now, we need someone to step up to share the load and I m not convinced Walton or Irvin has progressed enough.

      I hope I am the one overthinking and would be proven wrong soon….