Michigan Continues Rolling Despite Key Personnel Losses

Posted by Ryan O'Neil on December 18th, 2018

Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis Has Been a Huge Surprise (USA Today Images)

Michigan is just 11 games into the season but this is already turning out to be John Beilein’s magnum opus. It was reasonable to expect that the Wolverines would take a step back from last season’s national runner-up performance, but Michigan — fueled by an elite defense (third nationally, per KenPom) — has just continued chugging along. A team that lost three starters has already locked up a trio of top-15 offenses (Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue), and when necessary, has also shown that it can dictate tempo. In the Wolverines’ ACC/Big Ten Challenge win over the Tar Heels last month, Michigan struggled with the pace of the game early until settling down and holding the Heels to just 46 points over the final 33 minutes.

Some of Michigan’s defensive success is attributable to how the Wolverines defend ball screens. Beilein teaches his players to “surf” ball screens, where the guard gets over the screen while the big man forces the ball-handler to move sideways or retreat. But the most vital part of any ball-screen defense comes with off-ball rotations, and the Wolverines are particularly adept at rotating and guarding in mismatches. Long and athletic players like Ignas Brazdeikis, Charles Matthews and Jordan Poole give Beilein great defensive versatility: all three can guard the wing, and Matthews and Brazdeikis in particular can defend the post too. Jon Teske has also developed into a defensive force; the anchor in the post has already logged four games this season in which he has recorded three or more blocks.

Even after losing Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman from a very good offensive unit, Michigan’s ability to get buckets has become even better this season. The development of lead guard Zavier Simpson, who boasts an assist-to-turnover ratio of more than three to one, helps considerably. The junior can seemingly get by his defender whenever he wants, creating ample scoring opportunities for his teammates. Poole has also shown great offensive improvement this season — the sophomore wing is logging an offensive rating of 120.9 while shooting a robust 48.1 percent from three-point range. But the biggest revelation of this year’s offense has been freshman forward Brazdeikis. He brings an ability to create his own shot, like this stepback jumper against Purdue:

His high basketball IQ and great feel for the game is demonstrated with smart cuts like this one.

The key question for Michigan is whether the 11-0 start is sustainable through Big Ten play. Typically a strength, the Wolverines are not an exceptional outside shooting team (36.6% 3FG) and they only rotate seven players consistently. But given its non-conference success to date, if Michigan can stay healthy and avoid multi-game losing streaks during conference play, the Wolverines will be in position to earn a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and perhaps give Beilein his best chance yet at earning that elusive National Championship.

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