We’re halfway through the non-conference season with half of Michigan’s non-conference games against high-major opponents in the book, so I figured it was as good of a time as ever to take a step back and examine what we’ve learned through the early season.
Defensive gains showing merit
Michigan has held its first six opponents below a point per possession. It’s too early to tell just how impressive that is — right now, the Wolverines have faced two top-50 offenses in six games — but it’s definitely an improvement.
Last year’s Michigan team was abused inside, allowing opponents to shoot 51.1% inside the arc. Right now, the strength of this year’s team is its interior defense as its allowed just a 43.4 field goal percentage inside the arc. In 2015-16, Michigan only held 10 teams to that average or below all season.
One of the most interesting defensive stats that I’ve found is buried deep in Michigan’s statistical profile. The Wolverines are not allowing teams to take many threes. Michigan opponents have attempted just 27.4% of their shot attempts from three-point range, the 13th lowest ratio nationally. Since Beilein arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan has ranked better than 150th just once in 3PA/FGA allowed and never better than 108th.
So Michigan is defending well inside the arc, while still being able to prevent teams from attempting three-point shots. Sound familiar? That’s the pack line recipe that has kept Wisconsin near the top of the Big Ten standings on an annual basis.
It might be time to worry about the shooting
Michigan is shooting just 33.6% from three-point range this season and hasn’t shot worse than 35% from long distance since 2010.
There are some notable trouble spots, the most important of which is the right corner. Michigan has attempted 27 threes from the right corner and has made just 4 of them. This is a trouble spot because these shots are almost always good looks that come off of dribble penetration.
All 27 of Michigan’s right corner three-point attempts have been catch and shoot jumpers, per Krossover. For comparison, The Wolverines shoot a more impressive m38% on catch-and-shoot threes from every other area on the floor.
The biggest problem is that Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and DJ Wilson, the two players that end up taking the majority of those right corner threes based on their positions, have struggled with their perimeter strokes. Abdur-Rahkman is shooting 23% from three and 0-for-9 from the right corner while Wilson is shooting 27% from three and is 0-for-7 from the right corner.
Another question mark is Duncan Robinson. Robinson is just 7-of-20 from three-point range, a fairly pedestrian 35%. Michigan needs him to be almost automatic as a weapon off the bench and he’s struggled out of the gate which has magnified the loss of Aubrey Dawkins.
Zak Irvin is still the barometer
When Zak Irvin plays well, Michigan plays well. That wasn’t much of a secret coming into the season and it doesn’t appear to have changed. Irvin played great in four of Michigan’s six games and played one of the worst games of his career at South Carolina — in the Wolverines’ lone loss.
Irvin’s three-point stroke has been inconsistent early on, but before the South Carolina game he was making the sort of plays that the Wolverines need from him out of the ball screen game. His assist rate is up this season and while his turnover rate is slightly elevated, much of that stems from the 8 turnover disaster in Columbia.
Teams are going to start loading up on Irvin and forcing other Michigan players to beat them, but his ability to adjust to different defensive looks over the next four months still feels like the key to Michigan’s season.
What’s next for DJ Wilson?
Wilson was dominant during Michigan’s two wins in New York City, but a bit more pedestrian over the last week. He still has the potential to be a game changer for this rotation with his length and athleticism, but it’s hard to be an energy guy who plays almost entirely off of residual action and be consistent.
Wilson’s offensive game has been fairly limited. As mentioned, he’s struggled with his three-point shot and the majority of his interior offense has come off of putbacks or in transition. Finding ways to get him more involved in the offense will be critical as the season moves forward to prevent opposing defenses from sagging off of him and loading up against Irvin or Walton.
The other potential problem that has arisen this week is that it can still be tough for Wilson to defend smaller players at the four spot — an equation that Michigan has been on the other side of so often in the past. Wilson struggles to keep guards in front of him and given how small some teams play, and how the Wolverines switch, he’ll have to continue to improve in that regard beyond just trying to block their shot from behind as they attack the lane.
But the bottom line is that, through six games, Wilson has emerged as the single biggest reason for optimism about this team that wasn’t expected in the offseason.
Abdur-Rahkman must attack
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is using slightly more possessions than last year, but I’m not sure that his game is progressing in the right direction.
The 6-foot-4 junior is attempting more threes than he did previously — he averaged twice as many 2PA as 3PA over the first two years of his career and has attempted 26 threes to 22 twos this season — and he hasn’t been making them. He’s also recorded just 9 assists to 11 turnovers.
Abdur-Rahkman is a valuable asset on this roster because he’s the best off-the-dribble player that Michigan has, and the numbers prove it. He’s shooting 59% on twos and he probably takes the most difficult two-point attempts on the roster. The message going forward has to be that the 6-foot-4 off guard needs to attack, attack, attack and try to get to the basket, the free throw line or find a teammate.
Michigan needs more from its freshmen
Michigan needs Xavier Simpson and Ibi Watson to carve out roles in the rotation. Right now Derrick Walton (7th) and Zak Irvin (5th) are logging some of the heaviest minute-loads in the Big Ten with Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman right behind them at 13th. There was a lot of talk about finding more rest for Michigan’s upperclassmen, but right now it’s clear that John Beilein doesn’t trust his freshmen to play in tight spots.
I doubt we see that chance on Wednesday against Virginia Tech, or in the other high profile games against Texas or UCLA, but Michigan has 4 guarantee games left on the non-conference schedule and it would be nice to see Simpson and Watson earn some minutes.
Consistency from Moritz Wagner
Moritz Wagner’s highlight reel and his per 40 minute stats are both impressive. He’s shown flashes of his offensive abilities whether it is off the dribble, from the three-point line (6-of-11), or just finishing around the basket. There’s no question that he’s the most skilled big that the Wolverines have, the question is how long can he stay on the floor and how consistent can he perform.
Wagner has these 5, 6 or 7 minute flashes where he can dominate a game, but he doesn’t play with enough consistency on the defensive end of the floor to allow himself the opportunity to get to that point. His tendency to try to draw charges while sliding over to help, rather than forming a wall with his arms straight up, and his still-present tendency to commit silly fouls has limited his production overall.
It’s all there for Wagner if he can put it together, but right now Mark Donnal is earning more minutes because he’s more consistent without the flash.