John Beilein told reporters after the Michigan’s loss at Indiana that he “hadn’t seen anything like” Indiana’s defensive game plan since he’d been in Ann Arbor. Given Michigan’s meager offensive performance, it’s hard not to believe him. The Hoosiers stopped Michigan’s offensive juggernaut in its tracks on Sunday afternoon.
While much of the attention in the immediate aftermath surrounded Yogi Ferrell’s off-ball denial defense of Nik Stauskas, that was far from the only wrinkle up Tom Crean’s sleeve. Ferrell took Stauskas out of the game, but other adjustments took Michigan’s offense completely out of its typical half court flow.
So how did the Wolverine offense – the third most efficient in the country – fail against Indiana’s defense? Simple: the Hoosiers switched screens at all five positions, including the traditional one-five high ball screen at the top of the key.
“When you’re consistently switching a certain screen that very few people switch on, it took us a while to respond,” Beilein explained on Monday’s Big Ten Conference call. “And when we did, we didn’t finish or rushed ourselves or did things. That was it. I can’t explain it any more.”
It sounds simple, but the good news for Michigan is that there aren’t many teams with the personnel capable of switching screens at the five spot. Indiana has a multitude of frontcourt options including Noah Vonleh – a defensive wild card rarely seen at this level.
First, let’s look at Indiana’s base defensive alignment.
Yogi Ferrell on Stauskas, Stanford Robinson on LeVert, Troy Williams on Walton, Noah Vonleh on Robinson and Will Sheehey on Morgan.
Indiana guarded Michigan’s three with a one, one with a three, four with a five and five with a four. The only defensive match up that was ‘traditional’ was Stanford Robinson on LeVert.
Early in the game you see Michigan running its normal offense. Jordan Morgan is going to set a screen for Caris LeVert. When Indiana switches the screen, LeVert makes the read that he’s taught: drive against the switch. The only problem is that Will Sheehey is guarding him, not a typical big man. Sheehey has the quickness to stay in front of LeVert off the bounce and is able to force a difficult shot.
Indiana’s defensive approach worked not just because it disrupted Michigan’s ball screens, but because the Wolverines couldn’t exploit a mismatch at any other positions.
Michigan tried to get Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford the ball early against the switch, but they had limited success and missed some decent opportunities.
Nik Stauskas didn’t touch the ball often, but when he did he tried to either shoot over Ferrell or take him down to the post. That’s the proper game plan, but he missed both attempts and grew frustrated.
Glenn Robinson III didn’t have the quickness to beat Noah Vonleh off the dribble and struggled all game, even against back up defensive options like Jeremy Hollowell.
While Caris LeVert struggled in the first half, he was Michigan’s best option throughout most of the game. In the second half, Michigan went with a couple LeVert-centric tweaks to its offense, including a straight isolation drive on Stanford Robinson and having LeVert reject a ball screen and drive away from the switch for an easy two. LeVert also learns how much easier it is to score when Vonleh isn’t on the floor, attacking the switch with Devin Davis in the game.
Michigan’s other adjustment was to run more ball screens with Glenn Robinson III as the screener, forcing Noah Vonleh to guard the ball screen. Indiana still switched the screen and Michigan’s guards had very little luck driving on Vonleh.
By the time Michigan figured things out offensively, it was too late because the defensive effort had deteriorated. The dismal offensive performance in the first half certainly cost the Wolverines because they were playing behind throughout the game.
Michigan could have made more adjustments and could have converted on the few opportunities when it did. The Wolverines missed a lot of opportunities in one-on-one matchups that should have been a Michigan advantage on paper. In a game that only had 55 possessions, missing a layup over a switch or botching an isolation mismatch had an even greater effect.
But at the end of the day, there aren’t many Noah Vonlehs in the Big Ten or in the country. Ferrell did a great job of negating Nik Stauskas, but Vonleh essentially negated the rest of the Michigan offense. The good news for Michigan is that very few coaches are going to switch every screen like Indiana – and the ones that will probably don’t have a Vonleh.