Thursday Thoughts: Zone defense, ball screens, timeouts & more

Dylan Burkhardt

Michigan is 8-3 with two guarantee games to play on the non-conference slate. The Wolverines lost to the three best teams that they faced, but while two of the three are undefeated and the third team is ranked there’s no sugar coating the fact that they looked bad in all three losses, losing by a combined margin of 54 points.

But Michigan also has a couple solid wins over Texas and at North Carolina State and their resume thus far probably qualifies as holding serve. To make the NCAA tournament with any sort of comfort, the Wolverines are going to have to pick up a few breaks in conference play.

Here are a few thoughts on what has worked and what hasn’t worked through the first eleven games of the season.

1. Zone defense doesn’t work.

Michigan doesn’t have a good defense. The Wolverines are ranked 103rd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and have 242 points in 200 possessions in their three losses for a disastrous 1.21 points per possession.

While the defense has been bad overall, Michigan’s zone defense has been nothing short of awful. According to statistics from Synergy Sports, Michigan has allowed 76 points in 64 possessions of zone defense. That’s an atrocious 1.19 points per possession which ranks in just the 7th percentile nationally.

The argument can be made that Michigan has usually only gone to the zone in games where its defense was already struggling, but on the whole the half court man-to-man defense has been significantly better. Michigan’s man-to-man defense grades out in the 88th percentile with just .759 points per possession allowed in half court sets.

The Wolverines have played equal parts 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones and both have been failed ventures this season. The 1-3-1 zone was notoriously picked apart by SMU, which repeatedly lobbed the ball over the top, and the 2-3 zone hasn’t been much better. Zone looks have changed games for Michigan in the past, but for whatever reason this year’s zone isn’t working.

2. Pick-and-roll game developing

Michigan’s offense was way off track at this point last year because for one reason or another the pick-and-roll game wasn’t working. That isn’t the case this year. Michigan might not be on the same record setting pace that it was in 2013 or 2014, but the Wolverines’ ball screen game is working just fine.

Before LeVert and Walton were sidelined last year, the Wolverines were scoring .86 points per ball screen possession including passes, according to Synergy Sports. Michigan fixed some of those problems late in the season as Zak Irvin and Spike Albrecht emerged and appears to have picked up where it left off last season.

This year the Wolverines are scoring .958 points per ball screen possession  and have four above-average creators in the pick-and-roll game in Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Derrick Walton.

Walton and Irvin both grade out above the 85th percentile in creating their own ball screen offense while LeVert has struggled a bit shooting off the pick-and-roll in the 65th percentile but is accounting for 42% of Michigan’s pick-and-roll offense.

3. Other defensive woes

The biggest red flags on Michigan’s defensive profile are spot up and isolation defensive possessions, according to stats from Synergy Sports. Teams are simply shooting over or driving past Michigan defenders.

The Wolverines grade out in just the 8th percentile nationally in defending spot up possessions. That speaks to bad rotations and wide open shots and also poor close outs allowing straightline drives to the basket. Neither of those should come as any surprise to fans that have been watching the Wolverines play this season.

Michigan also grades out in the 29th percentile in guarding isolations (including passes) and its the passes that have done it in. Michigan is allowing dribble penetration and then over helping, leading to the easy sort of dunks that we saw against SMU. Michigan has given up 20 points in 17 pass outs from isolation drives this season.

Better close out angles and better defensive rotations can fix some of these problems, but this isn’t a defense loaded with players who appear to be plus-defenders. On paper, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton have been two of Michigan’s best.

4. Winning after timeout situations

It’s probably still too early for this number to mean much, but Michigan is dominating out of timeout situations this year. The Wolverines are scoring 1.029 points per possession after timeouts (92nd percentile) and allowing just .649 points per possession after timeouts (93rd percentile), per Synergy.

Outscoring opponents by a .38 margin per possession out of timeouts is impressive, but much of this could just be the statistical noise of some of the lower-level competition that Michigan has faced.

5. Minutes for Moe?

Moritz Wagner scored 26 points in the final two games of the Battle 4 Atlantis and many were ready to anoint him Michigan’s new five man. Since he returned to the States, things haven’t been as smooth.

He played 23 minutes and scored 8 points against NC State, but his minutes have shrunk in recent games. He’s averaging just 10 minutes per game over the last four games and is 1 of 7 from the floor with four turnovers. He played just three minutes on Tuesday and was pulled early for a blown pick-and-roll coverage before Mark Donnal played one of his better games of the year.

There’s no question that Wagner has more potential than any of Michigan’s big men, but he’s had the tendency to hurt the Wolverines with negative plays. He has to learn to do more by doing less, one of John Beilein’s favorite phrases, and he’ll have to continue to improve defensively where the Wolverines have struggled.

With two more guarantee games left on the schedule, it would be nice to see him get an extended shift and start to get his feet under him before Big Ten play, where his services are certain to be required sooner than later.

  • gobluemd16

    Definitely agree with #5. Anyone could have told you the zone defenses were bad, but those PPP statistics are very telling. It would be better for this team to become decent at one defense (man-to-man) than below average at many — move away from the zones!

  • MrLG

    @Dylan “their resume thus far probably qualifies as holding serve. To make the NCAA tournament with any sort of comfort, the Wolverines are going to have to pick up a few breaks in conference play.” Have to disagree with you here. As far as seeding in the tournament goes, it’s about winning and losing, not whether you look like cr*p in your losses. So assuming that UM is a 30-40 team right now, the ugly losses to SMU, Xavier and Connecticut really don’t matter. The win over Texas actually looks good. This early season has been fine.

    I think a reasonable goal for UM is a 4 seed. JB’s teams tend to improve a lot over the season. The goal of a 4 seed is attainable, we just need to play solid in the big 10.

    • Oh I wasn’t trying to say the resume is poor overall. But it’s just ‘fine’ as you say. If Michigan wants to be a four seed it is going to have to pick up some quality wins against the top 3 teams in the Big Ten.

      • MrLG

        Sure. But when you have Caris and Duncan on your team, you always have the opportunity to knock off a top team, particularly at home.

        • AA7596

          Nothing that’s happened so far suggests U-M can handle MSU/Purdue/Maryland, home or away. But Beilein’s teams do tend to improve, so perhaps they won’t be the same team by the time they play.

          Dylan is right—to get into 4 seed territory, you need some big-time wins. Right now the more realistic path for Michigan is to avoid bad losses, get to 9 or 10 conference wins and go from there in the B1G tournament.

    • dingleberries1972

      I kinda disagree that this team as it stands would get the nod. They have 0 toughness 0 chance at winning when not shooting 50% or better from three. I am sick and tired of watching this team retreat when a shot is in the air. The recruiting talent we got from the runner up and elite 8 runs was very bad. Donnal may not have D1 talent at all and a lot of these guys have not worked on other parts of their game. They can shoot but can they dribble, drive, create or finish. DJ Wilson is no better than day 1. The kid from Oregon has been lost for two years. Can’t even remember his name he’s so bad.

      • MAZS

        “the kid from Oregon”?
        I’d like to think that was a poor attempt at humor, but the rest of your screed suggests otherwise.

    • Wayman Britt

      For UM to get a 4th seed they will have to win at least 13 games in the conference, that’s going to be tough sledding. It’s doable, but the defense will have to improve a lot. I am worried about just getting into the tourney.

  • GTFOmycourt

    We have had 3 chances to beat very good teams. We lossed all 3. We definitely need to beat some good teams and perhaps one of the very good teams in conference play to be a 6th seed or better, in my opinion.

  • Merlin50

    Fans complain about Beilein’s recruiting but isnt the real problem that he is an average or worse defensive coach. If you look at his KenPom ranking this is the area that always lags in his teams. Harbaugh has a defensive coach maybe Beilein should look to a shakeup in the assistants to get someone to help him.

    • Mark Worthley

      I’m not sure defense is a priority in recruiting either.

    • AA7596

      Defense is partly a recruiting issue. Thad Matta’s teams (present one notwithstanding) are always a pain defensively because he prioritizes athleticism in recruiting. The trade-off for him is on the offensive end.

      Beilein is the opposite—he values skill and will compromise on athleticism to get it.

  • mikey_mac

    Death to zone. That is all.

  • dingleberries1972

    I know that every year in every big game we worry about rebounding leading up to the game and get outrebounded during the game and then talk about getting better at it after the game. Do people who rebound not get recruited or do they just not want to play here? I was a marginal basketball player at best in high school but I outrebounded people because I wanted to do so. You have to want to rebound.

    • Guest

      Rebounding isn’t emphasized under JB. Michigan always has been awful in rebounding, but usually has one big who is really good at rebounding on the floor like McGary or Morgan/Horford.

      • I see people say stuff like this all the time without such an important distinction.

        Offensive rebounding isn’t emphasized under Beilein. Defensive rebounding is a different ball game. There’s a pretty major distinction.

        Michigan hasn’t always / usually been a good defensive rebounding team but it wants to be. There’s not a pressing need to attack the offensive glass.

  • Champswest

    With our size this year, I would have thought that we would be much better at zone than we are now.

  • Wayman Britt

    No coach in the NCAA is better than Beilein in designing and executing plays on offense after a timeout.

    • doc

      Wayman, Doc from SC—enjoy your posts and expertise.

  • MGoTweeter

    RE: 1-3-1- zone. Michigan only ran it once last game but it did seem like they were playing it lower (or more compact) than they usually do. That is an adjustment I would love to see them make. Michigans wings are not quick enough to be aggressive guarding the ball the way Beilein usually runs it.

    • They also had Duncan at the top of it I believe with Caris on the wing.