Michigan ran head first into the wrong situation at the wrong time in the wrong place.
Nebraska had the personnel package to neutralize Moritz Wagner, a packed arena, and revenge on their mind after last year’s embarrassing home defeat.
After Michigan’s win in East Lansing, the common refrain praise for how the Wolverines kept the game in check. The Wolverines might have made mistakes, but they never made three or four in a row. Michigan State never scored more than 7 points unanswered. To win road games, you have to eliminate mistakes and make big shots to answer runs.
Michigan turned the ball over 9 times in 29 first half possessions and didn’t make a basket for the final 11 minutes of the opening period. It is impossible to keep a game in check with that sort of execution on the road.
The Wolverines trailed by 11 points at the half, 18 points midway through the second half, and emptied their bench with 5 minutes remaining in the 20-point road loss.
Michigan scored at least a point per possession in every Big Ten game last season and tonight is a reminder of just how far this offense has to go. The Wolverines only scored .88 points per possession, turned the ball over once every five trips down the floor, and had their worst shooting night of the season.
The Wolverines shot 45% on twos and 22% on threes for a 41% effective field goal percentage. About the only thing that went well on offense was crashing the glass as Michigan rebounded 39% of its misses for 16 second chance points.
First things first, Nebraska is a pretty good defensive team. The Cornhuskers are ranked 4th in the conference in points allowed per possession and they’ve already played Purdue and Michigan State on the road.
Michigan’s offense has real problems that it has to answer. The Wolverines lack shooting and ball screen playmaking from their guards and wings. Those two things are a staple of the John Beilein’s offense and while the guards made some of those plays against Purdue and Michigan State, this isn’t the first time that Michigan has looked incompetent for a half on offense. This was the third half of Big Ten basketball that Michigan failed to score more than 21 points.
Much will be made about the fact that Nebraska switched ball screens in this game and rightfully so. Michigan didn’t have an answer. There’s a bit more at play than switching every screen simply being Michigan’s undoing. Purdue switched every ball screen and Michigan’s offense had one of its better offensive nights of the year, tonight was Michigan’s worst offensive performance of the season.
Switching against Michigan works perfectly if you have the personnel to accomplish it. Tim Miles would have been comfortable with Isaiah Roby guarding any Michigan player on the floor and that makes the decision to switch everything easy.
The first inclination by announcers, fans or tweeters is to throw the ball in the post and “attack the mismatch”. This can work at times, but it speaks to the overall goal of a switching defense. By that point, the defense has already won. They’ve taken the opposing offense out of what it wants to do and forced it into trying to figure out how to isolate in a one-on-one situation somewhere on the floor.
Less motion. More dribbling. More standing.
Case in point: Just 6 of Michigan’s 21 made baskets were assisted.
The mismatch in the post is also the first thing that any switching defense is designed to protect against. Nebraska’s length was a killer on Thursday night because they did a great job of helping down into the post and still being able to close out to three. Michigan couldn’t get open threes, couldn’t pass the ball inside (or got trapped when it did) and was left driving into the teeth of an aggressive defense.
At this point, it is no secret that Michigan’s guards aren’t all that great at scoring in isolation situations. Every coach knows that Moritz Wagner grades out in just the 34th percentile as a post-up scorer, but is elite as a roll man or spotting up against a big. There’s no easy option for an offense that doesn’t have a player like Derrick Walton ready to knock in a step back jumper over a slower player.
On defense, this was Michigan’s worst performance in league play at 1.21 points per possession allowed. The Wolverines are 0-5 this year when they allow more than 1.05 points per possession. There were plenty of defensive breakdowns, but Michigan’s undoing early on was its giveaways and mistakes offensively which led to the easy transition offense that it has worked so hard to take away from its opponents. That allowed the game to get out of trouble and Michigan seemed rattled from then on.
Michigan’s defense has drawn a lot of headlines, but it is ranked just 8th in the Big Ten in points per possession and 10th in eFG% allowed. There’s room for growth on that end of the floor as well.
Yes, Michigan has been playing a lot of basketball lately and maybe that has had an effect this week. But at the end of the day pretty good Big Ten teams lose games on the road to other pretty good Big Ten teams. There’s no reason this should have been a 20-point loss, but this is a reminder of where this team is.
Michigan has outscored league opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions. Nebraska has outscored Big Ten opponents by 1.3 points per 100 possessions. Purdue and Ohio State has outscored league teams by over 20 points per 100 possessions.
That speaks to where this team is right now despite that signature win in East Lansing. This team isn’t on the same level as the conference contenders and is going to have to scrap to win every game this year. Road games are difficult to win and that’s why Michigan’s home win on Monday night was so important.
- Moritz Wagner: This is a game that would have seen DJ Wilson playing heavy minutes at the five last season and it is exactly the sort of game where Wagner can struggle. Isaiah Roby had no issue staying in front of Wagner and he’s quick enough to give him fits on the other end of the floor. Wagner is great attacking teams with traditional bigs, but I’m not sure what he can do to make himself more useful when the opponent goes small. He can become more efficient in the post, but he settles for awkward turnaround jumpers on the baseline that are celebrated when they go in, but haven’t been an efficient shot for him. Can he play better than this against a switching defense? Of course. But he’s at his best when he can get downhill and he couldn’t do that against Roby. The good news for Wagner? Plenty of teams don’t have a 6-foot-8 guy who can shoot threes, guard bigs and switch onto guards. And others have a post player who is too effective to take off the floor to use their versatile defenders like that.
- Charles Matthews: This is the kind of game that Michigan needs Charles Matthews to make plays in and he made a few really nice ones. He got to the basket consistently and was 6-of-8 on 2-point attempts. He had some great defensive plays at the rim and handed out two assists. He also turned the ball over three times including a horrific giveaway in the backcourt right after Michigan had gotten a stop down by 8 points. The game was never that close again and that’s exactly the kind of mental lapses that Matthews just hasn’t been able to cut out of his game.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: If Abdur-Rahkman goes 2-of-7 on twos and 1-of-4 in threes in games like this, Michigan is going to lose. He needs to be that breakdown guy and he’s struggling to finish inside. He’s just 5-of-21 on 2-pointers over the last three games and the Wolverines need him to provide that downhill scoring.
- Jordan Poole: Poole saw the floor for 16 minutes and got some extended run in the second half. There will be a lot of teaching moments on film back in Ann Arbor. Poole made a few of the those freshman mistakes that Michigan wants to iron out of his game and I actually like the fact that Beilein left him out there in a hostile environment to work through them.
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson scored 3 points on 1-of-4 shooting and was pulled out of the game with 15 minutes to play and didn’t see the floor again. Teams are switching against Michigan to force Simpson to try to beat them and he’s been struggling after a few bright moments last week. Beilein went with an Abdur-Rahkman and Poole combination at the one-two to try to get more playmaking on the floor.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers had some nice moments early with a corner three, but I thought the game got a bit sped up as it wore on. He was more aggressive than he’s been on offense, but it generally got him into trouble.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson is looking a bit like a shell of himself at this point. His confidence is sapped and he missed both of his 3-point attempts.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons appears to have taken over the backup point guard role and actually had a few nice moments attacking the rim. He still has some moments defensively where he misses a switch or gets lost, but he looks more confident with the ball in his hands than Eli Brooks.
- Jon Teske: When Teske was on the floor, Nebraska went big and although he had a few nice defensive plays, he missed an elbow jumper and a couple of bunnies around the rim.