Last year Michigan played in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998, ending an 11-year exile that had constituted one of the more striking and ungainly protuberances on the college hoops landscape. For, speaking programmatically, the Wolverines should be good. Theirs is a storied Big Ten franchise, one that won a national championship just 20 short years ago. They’re located smack dab in the middle of a deep pool of elite high-school basketball talent. Their two best players, Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, are local products who are being fed shots and possessions in star-pleasing abundance. Their coach, John Beilein, has succeeded everywhere he’s been and is consistently rated by his peers as one of the top minds in the game.
So why on earth is this team losing to everyone better than Creighton? (And even the win against the Bluejays went to OT.) Let’s go from the top….
Michigan wasn’t as good as you thought they were last year.
The Wolverines were actually outscored in Big Ten play in 2009, thanks to poor three-point shooting and a defense that couldn’t prevent anyone from making twos. Be that as it may, Beilein’s team was able to wrangle a momentous NCAA bid anyway and, indeed, beat Clemson in the first round. As a result there was, quite rightly, a tremendous feel-good vibe surrounding this team coming into 2009-10. They had just ended the sport’s most improbable tournament drought and, in the persons of Harris and Sims, they returned their two main stars. All true enough. But, alas, this team did not grow any taller or more accurate in the offseason.
Still, even measured against their actual performance last year, the Wolverines are (duh) underperforming.
One thing that was not a problem in Ann Arbor last year was defensive rebounding. Though Michigan’s season totals for 2008-09 in this department may have looked underwhelming, the fact is that by the time Big Ten play rolled around, John Beilein’s team was able to haul down 71 percent of their opponents’ misses. Only Michigan State and Wisconsin were better on the defensive glass in conference play. That’s hard to believe, I know, about a small team that plays a lot of 1-3-1 zone, but it happened.
Fast-forward to December 2009, however, and we find that Michigan’s performing a lot more like you’d expect in this area. In truth their defensive rebounding has collapsed: The Wolverines this season have pulled down just 63 percent of their (D-I) opponents’ misses. If you’re a UM fan the insistently unsettling aspect of that figure is that it’s an eight-game result that includes games against the likes of Houston Baptist, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and Detroit. No one player is responsible, of course, but for better or worse Harris is not the problem. He was this team’s best defensive rebounder last year and he is again this year. Sims on the other hand does need to chase down more rebounds merely to replicate what he did last year on the defensive glass.
At this point you’re looking at a team that officially has the yips.
I realize that may not be the most precise analytical term, but it’s accurate. Just look at Harris’s free throws. His shooting at the line has dipped by more than ten percent this year. No wonder he can’t buy a three. Even odder, Sims can’t buy a two. Michigan’s is an offense predicated on those two players. When they struggle, the team struggles.
Incredibly, things could be even worse.
Much worse. Michigan actually has had a very strong wind at its back in the form of what is perhaps the nation’s healthiest turnover margin. The part of the Beilein system that entails minimizing turnovers has definitely arrived, as the Wolverines are giving the ball away on just 15 percent of their trips. Meanwhile the 1-3-1 zone, while allowing opponents to make a lot of shots this season, has at least succeeded in creating turnovers on 24 percent of UM’s defensive possessions. Michigan gets more chances to score than their opponents. They’re losing anyway.
John Beilein is well aware of all of the above.
Particularly the “yips” part. Harris is struggling with his threes so suddenly he’s shooting more twos. Sims is struggling with his twos, so suddenly he’s shooting more threes. Seriously, you can see Beilein hitting all the correct buttons here. If he could use the coaching force to guide the ball into the basket, he would. Alas, that’s not how it works. College basketball coaches are way more demonstrative during games than their brethren in baseball and football precisely because they have way less control over actual events.
There’s nothing wrong with running virtually your entire offense through just two players.
Kansas State currently gives shots to Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente to almost the exact same extent that Michigan routes their attack through Harris and Sims, and the Wildcats are practically America’s Team after trouncing previously undefeated UNLV in Vegas the other night.
Moreover there’s nothing “fundamentally” wrong with shooting a lot of threes.
Northwestern leads the nation in the percentage of shot attempts they devote to threes, and I haven’t noticed anyone lecturing Bill Carmody on how his offense is “imbalanced” or “fundamentally flawed.” The problem isn’t that Michigan’s shooting too many threes, it’s that they’re not going in. (The three-point shooting this year has gone from “poor” to “horrific.”) Neither are the twos. Boston College in particular was brazen in their manifest willingness to set up camp in the paint and watch serenely as the Wolverines took—and missed—open three after open three.
That being said, the coach could stand to give Zack Gibson more minutes.
I am not the first to point that out, I know, but I have a soft spot in my heart for a “four-and-more” player like Gibson. I always think it’s interesting when a senior makes a big jump because fans, writers, and, heck, coaches can so easily overlook what’s happening. After three seasons of watching a player we all have him comfortably and indeed very often irrevocably categorized. Well, it’s time to re-categorize Gibson. This year he’s made 70 percent of his twos while taking an ostentatiously put-me-in-coach 24 percent of Michigan’s shots during his minutes.
Granted, the omniscient Beilein didn’t need me to tell him about Gibson’s surprising effectiveness. So the coach gave his senior a start against Utah…and watched him go 0-for-2 from the field in 20 nondescript minutes. I’m not saying Gibson will lead Michigan to the Final Four. I am saying his minutes-to-performance ratio has been seriously out-of-whack.
Silver lining: It’s December 15.
Things are bleak in Ann Arbor. The number-crunching robots deployed by colleague Ken Pomeroy have chirped in their ominously mechanistic and autonomous way that based on what they’ve seen from the Wolverines thus far they think this team will go 5-13 in the Big Ten this year. That, to say the least, would be a shocking result given that Michigan returns 82 percent of the possession-minutes from a team that just went 9-9 in the conference. Can Michigan turn things around? If so I predict it will start not with a players-only meeting, or a dunk, or even a Promise. It will instead start more prosaically. Fans of the maize and blue should tally each defensive board and made three. As those totals go, so goes their team.
John also does pre-mortems on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.