Defense is the primary reason that Michigan has exceeded expectations through the first eleven games this season. The Wolverines have demonstrated a newfound tenacity on the defensive end – they currently rank 16th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. It’s tough to measure individual defensive performance with statistics, but early returns point to significant improvement from one position group more than others: the guards.
After watching Oakland’s guards struggle to even make a basket on Saturday, I decided to run the numbers and see how opposing guards have fared versus the Wolverine defense this season. I came up with this table, which includes the field goal percentages and points scored for each starting backcourt that Michigan has faced – the results are impressive.
Note: Every starting line up listed 2 or 3 guards, so I normalized the numbers into points/starter. Randy Culpepper (UTEP) was included as a starter because he played starter minutes and is a regular UTEP starter that came off the bench for what seemed like disciplinary reasons.
Only one team’s starting guards have shot over 40% from the field against Michigan. Obviously games versus USC Upstate or North Carolina Central aren’t going to prove much, but after 11 games there’s a decent amount of data to work with.
Bacari Alexander has been universally praised for the accelerated growth of Michigan’s freshmen big men, and rightfully so. However, there’s an assistant coach that probably deserves more credit for Michigan’s play on the defensive end: LaVall Jordan. Jordan is just 10 years removed from his playing days as a defensive stopper at Butler, where he notably held Detroit guard Rashad Phillips to 11 points in the MCC Championship game. Phillips shot 27% from the field and scored just half of his season average. While all of Michigan’s new assistants have made a significant impact, it’s safe to say that LaVall Jordan knows a thing or two about defense.
Some might discredit the field goal percentage statistic to an “off shooting night” and that might be the case for any single game, but over the course of a season, field goal percentage allowed is the most important defensive statistic. High pressure defenses that cause truckloads of turnovers can also be effective, but those defenses are inherently vulnerable because they are exposed to easy looks, meaning their opponents hit shots at a higher rate. At the end of the day, there are two keys to defense: force your opponents to take low quality shots and then rebound them when they come off the rim.
You need look no further than an hour north to find an example of this in practice, as Michigan State has founded their defensive identity on these same principles. You will rarely see a Spartan team that forces a lot of turnovers but you will always see them ranked as one of the top defenses in the country.
Defensive rebounding is obviously the second part of this equation, and Michigan continues to excel in this department as well. Michigan is rebounding over 75% of their opponents’ missed shots and their best defensive rebounder is their starting two guard. Zack Novak is rebounding a remarkable 23% of opponents’ misses when he’s on the floor, a mark that ranks fourth in the Big Ten – only topped by Jared Sullinger, Trevor Mbakwe, and Draymond Green.
Through eleven games, the strategy is working. Four of Michigan’s ten Division I opponents have had their worst shooting night of the season versus the Wolverines. Three others have had one of their worst three shooting nights. Only Gardner-Webb had an above average day from the field, mostly because their shooting numbers have been so dreadful all year.
The larger question is whether Michigan’s defense will hold up as they move into conference play. There are plenty of talented guards ahead on the schedule, E’TWaun Moore, Demetri McCamey, Kalin Lucas, Josh Selby and Talor Battle to name a few, and Michigan’s backcourt defense will be tested. Obviously some of these guards will have good days, but if Michigan wants to sustain success in the second half of the season they will need to sustain this defensive focus and execution.