A little over a month ago, Michigan’s season looked finished. The Wolverines were 11-9 (1-6) and a once promising and encouraging season appeared to be turning into a battle to stay out of the Big Ten basement. Michigan had its work cut out just to put together an NIT-worthy resume. Then Michigan won 7 of its next 10 games with two losses settled by buzzer beaters and another to the nation’s top team. Now Michigan sits at 18-12 (8-9) with opportunity in hand. The Wolverines will host Michigan State on Saturday for what should be the most important game in the in-state rivalry in at least a decade. A win would give Michigan its first sweep of Michigan State since 1997, first Big Ten Tournament bye since 2004 and continue to solidify its improving NCAA Tournament resume.
How did Michigan turn the season around? A large part of it is undoubtedly psychological. Michigan is playing with more confidence and swagger, playing together when the going gets tough. Michigan has won five road games, a test of mental strength, and battled back from numerous deficits. That said, the greatest statistical improvement has been on the defensive end of the court. The Wolverine defense was shredded during the first seven Big Ten games, allowing a staggering 1.22 points per possession. In the last 10 games, Michigan has allowed just 1.03 points per trip. In case you are unfamiliar with efficiency margins, this is a radical improvement. Michigan’s worst defensive performance during the last 10 games, 1.14 points allowed per trip, is better than its best, 1.15 allowed per trip, during the first seven.
Michigan’s defensive improvement stems from significantly better field goal percentage defense. The Wolverines rarely block shots but are learning to be more crisp in their defensive rotations and contest shots more effectively. Michigan allowed its first seven Big Ten opponents an average effective field goal percentage over 60% but the next 10 have been held to an average eFG% under 50%. Just one of Michigan’s last 10 opponents have topped an effective field goal percentage of 54%.
There isn’t quite as much obvious improvement when examining the other three factors. The Wolverines still aren’t forcing many more turnovers and are still average to above average on the defensive glass. The one other area where Michigan has shown improvement is keeping opponents off of the charity stripe. John Beilein’s teams have always been known for doing a handful of notable things: shooting a lot of threes, not turning the ball over, not fouling, and not grabbing many offensive rebounds. This year’s young team really struggled to avoid fouling early on in conference play but has shown steady improvement. This improvement has not only allowed Jordan Morgan to stay out of foul trouble and on the court, it has eliminated all of the free points that Michigan allowed early in conference play (just ask Indiana about fouling).
Michigan’s offense has been effective throughout conference play and is Beilein’s most efficient offense at Michigan. The Wolverines are the second best shooting team in the league, with a 54.4% effective field goal percentage in Big Ten games, and have scored inside (51.7%, 3rd) and out (38.7%, 4th). While the overall offensive production hasn’t shifted much over conference play, one player has emerged as a star: Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway has shifted from a streaky volume shooter to an efficient scorer. Suddenly he’s hitting threes, attacking the basket, dunking in transition, setting up teammates off the pick and roll and even hitting pull-up jumpers. He’s been so efficient that we need not one, but two charts to do him justice.
Charts from StatSheet.com