2010-2011 Season

Five Thoughts on Michigan’s Defense

With so many questions surrounding Michigan’s ability to replace the production of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims on the offensive end, there has been very little talk about the defensive end of the floor. With one relatively meaningless cupcake game under our belts, here are five thoughts about Michigan’s defense before we make it further into the non-conference season.

1. Michigan’s defense has improved every year under John Beilein

Despite the confounding results on the court, on a per possession basis, Michigan’s defense has improved every year that John Beilein has been in Ann Arbor. The numbers don’t lie:

PPP Def Rank 2008 2009 2010
Big Ten Rank 9 6 6
National Rank 80 67 53

Despite Michigan’s improvement, they continue to lag far behind the top dogs of the conference. Last season Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan State gave up anywhere from .04 to .07 points per possession less than Michigan — a pretty wide margin. Michigan is stuck in that middle ground where their defense is better than other teams in the middle to bottom half of the conference but is far behind the elite defensive teams of the league.

It will be interesting to see whether Michigan’s defense can continue improve but, with so many freshman in the mix, it will be a struggle.

2. Will we see more 1-3-1 zone?

Beilein’s West Virginia teams were widely known for the 1-3-1 defense that they used consistently after made field goals, however in recent years Beilein’s teams have used the zone sparingly — even making a point to abandon it late last season.

We have seen very little of the 1-3-1 so far this year, as it’s still being implemented, but it looks like the roster is beginning to have the personnel to run more of it. A potential lineup of Darius Morris, Zack Novak, Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz, and Blake McLimans provides the length that makes the zone dangerous. Smotrycz gives you a 6-foot-9 guy on the wing (even with his below average wingspan) joined by Hardaway, who looks to be pushing 6-foot-6. Morris is a good fit to run the baseline because he has decent size at 6-foot-4 and is quick enough to run sideline to sideline. Novak might not be quite as long or athletic as you would want to play the top of the zone, but he has had some success there (notably versus Duke during his freshman year). In the middle, McLimans is intriguing with his length and shot blocking ability.

The problem with the 1-3-1, as we’ve learned over the last several years, is that it’s very unstable. Sometimes it works perfectly and others, for sometimes inexplicable reason, it doesn’t work at all. The biggest worry with so many underclassmen is that little mistakes are critical and almost always lead to easy layups or wide open threes.

3. Defensive Rebounding is the Key

In Big Ten play last year, Michigan rebounded 65.8% of their opponents’ misses, the third worst defensive rebounding percentage in the conference. The year before, they pulled down 71% of their opponents’ misses which was the third best defensive rebounding percentage in the conference. It’s safe to venture a guess that if Michigan would have done a better job on the defensive glass last year, they could have won a couple more Big Ten games last season.

Early returns point to Jordan Morgan being a strong defensive rebounder but there’s no doubt that Michigan is going to need a team effort on the defensive glass. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims were both very good defensive rebounders, pulling down 44% of Michigan’s defensive rebounds last season, and their production will be missed. Colton Christian is extremely raw but looks to be one of the best defensive rebounders on the team. Michigan is also going to need players like Zack Novak and Tim Hardaway to be above average defensive rebounders at their respective positions.

4. Will the New Assistant Coaches Have an Impact?

Lavall Jordan, Bacari Alexander, and Jeff Meyer all have preached improvement on the defensive end. John Beilein echoes their sentiments and, despite a reputation as a coach that runs things from top to bottom, appears ready to hand over some defensive responsibilities to his new assistant coaches.

“It’s going to be really difficult and a challenge for us everyday to continue to play defense so that we can rebound and then score points. … We think we’ve really stepped up with playing defense. (Assistant coaches LaVall Jordan, Bacari Alexander and Jeff Meyer) have done a great job improving what we do defensively.”

Bacari will work mainly with the post players — Jordan Morgan, Blake McLimans, and Jon Horford — and see if he can turn them into Big Ten caliber defenders. Two point field goal percentage defense has been one of the main weaknesses of the Michigan defense, so Alexander certainly has his work cut out for him. Beilein defenses are typically trademarked by the few blocked shots, few free throws model, and it will be interesting to see if we see a shift in that department.

Lavall Jordan will be staffed with improving the backcourt, where he’ll have an interesting set of pieces to work with. Morris has the tools to be a good defender but has yet to show consistency. Douglass has shown flashes, playing very good off the ball defense at times. Novak probably has less than ideal athleticism to defend the two position but has a knack for the ball. It will obviously be tough to judge the direct impact the assistant coaches have on the final result. However, it’s encouraging to see that the emphasis will be there.

5. How important are forced turnovers?

John Beilein’s West Virginia teams always did a tremendous job at forcing turnovers on the defensive end. Beilein’s first two teams in Ann Arbor (2008 and 2009) both were in the middle of the road in terms of forcing turnovers. Last year’s squad was significantly above average, turning opponents over on 23.1% of their possessions, and ranking 36th nationally in forced turnovers. Michigan continued to be impressive in this regard throughout conference play, turning opponents over on a conference best 21.9% of their possessions. Michigan’s lackluster results seem to infer that turnovers might not be the end all be all of good defense.

On the other hand, a majority of Michigan’s wins — 10 out of 15 — occurred when the Wolverines forced their opponents to turn the ball over on more than 23.5% of their possessions. Those wins weren’t all against cupcakes either, that group includes five of Michigan’s seven Big Ten wins. When Michigan turned their opponents over on fewer than 23.5% of their possessions, they were a mere 5-11.

The answer probably lies in the middle somewhere. Turnovers are important, they are essentially free possessions. However I don’t think they are necessarily a presage of defensive success.

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