2013-14 Season

First Look: Transition game, ball screens critical in Michigan-Iowa matchup

Michigan Wisconsin-16Michigan hosts Iowa on Wednesday evening in its second of three  consecutive conference games against top ten opponents. The Hawkeyes travel to Ann Arbor with a top ten ranking for the first time since 2002 and are flying high after three straight league wins, including a big win at Ohio State. (Photo: Chris Smith)

The match-up is a battle of statistical extremes.

The Hawkeyes are one of the deepest and tallest teams in the country. Iowa ranks 15th in bench minutes, relying on an 11 man rotation, and 4th in average height nationally. While the Hawkeyes give 41.4% of available minutes to their bench, Michigan’s bench plays just 29.1% of available minutes. The Wolverines also prefer small ball, starting a 6-foot-6 power forward and only having two active big men 6-foot-8 or taller.

But the differences between the two squads are more than superficial. Both teams want to play very different styles of basketball. For Iowa, that means pushing the tempo.

Transition game

Iowa averages 72.9 possessions per game, 13th nationally, and 72 possessions per game in the Big Ten. Those are tempo numbers rarely seen in the more methodical Big Ten, and the Hawkeyes average just 14.3 seconds per offensive possession.

Michigan averages just 64 possessions per game, 309th nationally, and 61.6 possessions per game in Big Ten play. The Wolverines want to slow the game down, especially on defense, but can be effective when their offense pushes the pace.

The Hawkeyes score 1.165 per transition possession and are the most productive transition offense in the conference. Iowa pushes the ball more often than any team in the conference other than Michigan State, but is able to do so with impressive efficiency. Michigan is the only conference team markedly more efficient than the Hawkeyes in transition, but roughly 5% less of its offensive possessions are in transition.


The Hawkeyes transition effort is spearheaded by Iowa’s 6-foot-9 wing forwards Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff. Uthoff and White are two of the conference’s five most effective transition finishers. They have size, run the floor well, and don’t miss many shots at the bucket. They both have size advantages over Glenn Robinson III at the four spot, and potentially Nik Stauskas at the three.


Iowa’s transition success is troubling news to the Wolverines because Michigan’s has one of the worst transition defenses in the country.

The following scatterplot shows the percent of defensive possessions in transition (x-axis) allowed and the points allowed per transition possession (y-axis). The best defenses – fewest points allowed, fewest possessions allowed – are in the upper-right quadrant.


The Wolverines allow the fewest transition possessions per game in the Big Ten but do the worst job of stopping them. If 20 to 25 percent of Iowa’s offensive possessions are in transition against Michigan, which could spell major difficulty for a Wolverine defense that usually allows just 12.3% of its defensive possessions in transition. If Michigan can keep that number under 15% for the game, it will be in a much better space defensively.

For that reason, expect the Wolverines to continue to be very conservative on the offensive glass, focusing more on getting back on defense than securing an extra possession.

Ball screens

Michigan butchered Wisconsin with ball screen after ball screen at the Kohl Center for its best road win in program history. 42% of Michigan’s possessions against the Badgers were ball screens, and the Wolverines were very effective knocking down mid-range shots available from Wisconsin’s conservative defensive approach.

That was no major surprise as the Wolverines are the best ball screen team in the Big Ten, despite losing Trey Burke to the NBA.


Only Illinois runs more ball screens than Michigan and no one is nearly as efficient. The Wolverines have three of the top-12 ball screen players in the league in Nik Stauskas (No. 2), Spike Albrecht (No. 5) and Caris LeVert (No. 12), and John Beilein gives his players plenty of freedom with the ball in their hands.

The bad news for the Wolverines is that Iowa touts one of the best ball screen defenses in the Big Ten. Similar to the defensive scatterplot above, the following graph shows percent of ball screen possessions defended against points allowed per ball screen. The best ball screen defenses are in the upper-right quadrant of the graph.


Iowa and Northwestern are the best teams at defending ball screens – by a wide margin.

A big reason for that success is Iowa’s ability to take away the ball handlers’ offense. There are only two teams that are more effective at taking away the dribblers’ offense in the pick-and-roll game, Arkansas and Virginia. Iowa has the luxury of having 6-foot-6 senior Devyn Marble guarding ball screens, which can make it more difficult for guards to shoot, get to the basket, or pass over the top.

Iowa surrenders just .545 points per possession to the ball handler. For comparison, Nik Stauskas usually scores .821 points per ball screen shot and Caris LeVert usually scores .963 points per ball screen shot.

Other notables

  • Iowa plays zone defense on 30% of its defensive possessions. The Hawkeyes are a very good zone defensive team, but Michigan is among the best zone offenses in the country. The Wolverines are scoring 1.30 points per possession against zone defenses, good for the 99th percentile nationally.
  • Return of the shooter. Josh Oglesby shot just 27% on 3-pointers last season but since he returned on December 22nd, he’s 12-of-20 from long range including a 5-of-7 effort against Minnesota.
  • Iowa’s Gabriel Olaseni and Melsahn Basabe rank 3rd and 5th in the Big Ten in points scored off of putbacks. Both players should provide a challenge for on the glass for Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, Michigan’s big men that have exceeded expectations with Mitch McGary sidelined.

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