Two things seemed to come up at every John Beilein press conference back in November and December.
The first was a sense of frustration and confusion as to how his team could be making the sort of miscues that he preaches to avoid. Things that might qualify as simple basketball decision making for Beilein, but advanced calculus to the average college freshman or newcomer.
The second was a unwavering belief that this team would grow into something special. At some moments that belief seemed plausible, but there were plenty of others where it sounded impossible.
A few months later, Beilein looks like an evil genius once again. The difference between Michigan as of March 4th, 2018 and Michigan as of December, 6th, 2017 is almost too great to believe.
The Michigan head coach figured out how to integrate a collection of pieces that might never have stood out on their own into a team that recorded at least one win over every Big Ten team. The type of team that won four games in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament. For the second year in a row.
Just like last year, Michigan’s run through the Big Ten in New York City wasn’t a fluke. It was the story of a team peaking at the right time, playing its best basketball in March and a group that has it figured out.
The Wolverines have been the best team in the country since February 7th. They’ve won 9 games in a row. They won on the road. They beat good teams, they beat average teams and they are still getting better.
Michigan’s offense had its way with the Purdue defense like a cat with a ball of yarn. Purdue tried to stick with a more traditional ball screen defense in the first half before switching screens in the second. Michigan attacked both looks effectively and the comfort in the ball screen game basically across the board — ball handlers and rollers — has grown exponentially over the last three weeks.
I loved some of the subtle adjustments that Michigan has been making out of ball screens whether its tighter side ball screens and frequent re-screening for ball handlers that struggle to shoot or making a concerted effort for bigs to crash the glass after guards shoot over the switch. Michigan has also figured out some of the proper angles to find those wraparound feeds to the roll man that just weren’t there early in the season.
The Wolverines played almost perfect offense in the first half, but they missed a handful of open threes that prevented a great half from being a dominant half. They made some more difficult threes in the second half and still finished with 1.17 points per possession of offensive output despite dicey free throw shooting down the stretch.
Defensively, Michigan just gets it done. I’m not sure what else you can even say at this point about a Michigan defense that is now in the top ten nationally in adjusted defensive effcieicny. Isaac Haas had some moments and finished with 23 points, but Michigan’s defensive effort against everything else that Purdue does was exceptional. Carsen Edwards was held in check — 4-of-16 shooting — thanks to a tag team effort by Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Zavier Simpson. Vince Edwards had mas many turnovers (2) as made baskets and the Wolverines ran Dakota Mathias off of every dribble handoff and forced him to do anything other than shoot.
The one blemish on Michigan’s defensive performance was on the glass, where Purdue rebounded 32% of its shots and scored 11 second chance points. As with the win over Michigan State on Saturday, Michigan’s defensive rebounding improved in the second half.
It will be a long week until Selection Sunday, but I don’t think the rest will hurt the Wolverines that much. There’s nothing that John Beilein loves more than practice and I suspect he’ll have plenty to focus on during a week of skill development in Ann Arbor.
The biggest question now is where does Michigan end up on the seed list when the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed. A 4-seed feels like a safe bet, but a 3-seed and potentially the opportunity to stay home and open the NCAA Tournament in Detroit feels like a legitimate possibility after this week.
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson looks like a transformed player with the ball in his hands. Early in the year, he dribbled to dribble and went nowhere. Now he’s dribbling with a purpose and is attacking to make things happen. He used to dribble the ball up the court, now he runs the team. His comfort in the ball screen game (and his ridiculous bag of tricks to finish at the rim) is growing by the day and he’s learning to leverage the same traits that make him so effective on defense — namely, his quickness — to start to make more plays offensively. He’s Michigan’s anchor and for the second game in a row he really set the tone early for how the game is going to go and his toughness and confidence is the foundation of what this Wolverine team has grown into.
- Jon Teske: It wasn’t quite Spike Albrecht, but Jon Teske played the best game of his career on the big stage. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, 2 assists and a block. He was fantastic in the ball screen game and finished effectively against Purdue’s size inside while doing his best to defend Haas on the other end of the court. Once he got going, a couple of mid-range jumpers didn’t hurt his cause. The over/under for poster dunks over Isaac Haas by Jon Teske was 0. The over/under for poster dunks over anyone all season might have been 0 if you asked before the season. I’m not sure what exactly got into them, but six months of replacing his ‘Big Sleep’ nickname with ‘Big Nasty’ finally paid off.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner managed to rack up 17 points in 17 minutes while battling foul trouble. His back-to-back threes midway through the second half — including the late clock, baseline out of bounds pirouette triple in the corner — really helped put Michigan ahead by a comfortable margin at a point where Purdue looked poised to make a run. Nothing Wagner does will the ball in his hands is really new, but there times when his connection, feel or spacing was just off with the rest of the offense this year. That’s to be expected adjusting to playing with so many new ballhandlers, but now he’s getting the ball in far more advantageous spots than he was earlier this season.
- Duncan Robinson: Michigan seems to have made an adjustment to run more 1-4 ball screen action and put Robinson in some pick-and-pop situations. He had another great drive and finish to the rim against a recovering defender, but didn’t make a 3-pointer. On defense, he’s running around like he means to get something done and is playing at a level that seemed impossible early in the year.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman made it back-to-back games with a dagger jumper that thudded on the rim first. Nothing like friendly rims in Madison Square Garden. He had another impressive performance this week, finishing with 15 points on 4-of-8 (3-5 3pt) shooting and four assists. He spent probably the majority of the game chasing Carsen Edwards around and did a terrific job and finished with an effective 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting with 2 assists.
- Charles Matthews: Matthews is fitting in before standing out right now. He had 8 points including a huge 3-pointer and great little pull-up in the lane. He also handed out 3 assists including a terrific pick-and-roll feed. Matthews is so fundamental to Michigan’s defensive improvement this season and provides a jolt of toughness, athleticism and plain talent on that end of the court.
- Jordan Poole: Poole was the one Wolverine who just never really found his game in New York City (he finished 0-of-9 from three for the tournament). He missed his only 3-point attempt of the game and it wasn’t even close. Getting him back on track for the NCAA Tournament will be critical during the time off.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers sprained his foot/ankle early in the second half and all of the sudden the compressed schedule looks great with almost two weeks until the Wolverines have to play again.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons missed a pair of open 3-pointers in the first half that were good shots and looked like they might fall. Beilein seems to be comfortable with Simmons in that backup role for a shift in both halves at this point, something that didn’t seem likely in early February. Kudos to Simmons for riding through some incredible adversity this season and finding his role.