The defensive void: Michigan basketball team searches for reasons for its suddenly porous defense
As Michigan redshirt freshman forward Jordan Morgan searched for an answer to his team’s defensive woes, for why the Wolverines have turned from a good defensive team to a poor one, he was asked a simple question.
Is it possible that Michigan became overconfident in its defense through the first two months of the season?
“That’s possible in regards that we probably felt our defense was good just because our defense was good,” Morgan said. “Really, it was the hard work we put in and how hard we came out to play every time that really made our defense so good.
“We get away from playing that hard and take possessions off, and you see what happens to our defense.”
The results are glaring.
For every good job the Michigan basketball team does on NBA prospects Keith Benson from Oakland and Jared Sullinger from Ohio State — both of whom said the Wolverines defended them differently than any team this season — there have been breakdowns.
That's something Michigan (11-9, 1-6 Big Ten) hopes to stop as it plays in-state rival Michigan State (12-7, 4-3) on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN).
Michigan lost Northwestern forward John Shurna on successive possessions in the first half allowing the him to roam free on the perimeter, where he scored 22 points in the first half against the Wolverines.
If this were the exception, it would be one thing. It isn’t.
Michigan let Indiana guard Verdell Jones III, the Hoosiers most potent scorer, take over the game in Indiana’s 80-61 win. It let Wisconsin’s Keaton Nankivil repeatedly get open at the top of the key for 3-pointers.
The larger issue: The mistakes are similar every game. Michigan’s post players — specifically Morgan and freshman Evan Smotrycz — are in foul trouble almost every game. Defensive assignments are being lost often.
During Big Ten play, it hasn’t only been big men in foul trouble. Sophomore point guard Darius Morris, freshman forward Tim Hardaway Jr. and junior guard Zack Novak missed chunks of games due to foul trouble.
This creates bad mismatches for Michigan.
“It’s tough to defend anybody,” junior guard Stu Douglass said. “When you don’t have your best guys out there.”
In the Big Ten, Michigan allows 1.22 points per possession, an ugly number that is last in the Big Ten according to statsheet.com. Worse still, that number is last among the 337 teams in Division I, barely ahead of the 1.2 PPP put up by Wake Forest and Indiana.
“If one person is just by accident or by distraction is not in proper place, you’d not be as strong as if all five guys saw the ball, saw their man and were talking,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “It just takes one and that’s why people score 50-80 points a game, because there are going to be breakdowns.
“When you have more of those breakdowns, you’re more susceptible.”
In almost every defensive category tracked by statsheet.com, Michigan is among the nation’s worst in conference games. The Wolverines are 335th in opponent effective field goal percentage (60.6) and true shooting percentage (62.9). Michigan allows teams to have an efficiency rating of 121.6, the best in the country.
It has been a massive drop from non-conference games. In Michigan’s non-conference games, including Syracuse and Kansas, only Harvard (1.03) and Bryant (1.15) had more than one point per possession. In Michigan’s Big Ten games, every team has had more than 1.1 point per possession.
In the Big Ten, this has borne out as an issue.
Consider: Kenpom.com, which has a bunch of team ratios on each team’s page on the site, lists a team’s defensive fingerprint. The defensive fingerprint, his site explains, is a combination of percentages to determine whether a team plays “mostly man,” “some zone,” “mostly zone” or “inconclusive.”
For much of the season, Michigan was labeled a man-to-man team. However, kenpom.com’s fingerprint has changed. To “inconclusive.”
Michigan’s defensive issues might be simpler than that. Besides the greater lapses and lack of experience and stronger talent the Wolverines have played in the Big Ten, there is also a personnel issue.
It is not something that will be fixed this season, as Michigan tries to mask its quickness issues with double teams and gap defense.
“Everybody looks at our team and knows we’re not real quick,” Beilein said. “We know that, and we’re addressing it with (2011 commitments) Carlton (Brundidge) and Trey Burke, so they are going to help a great deal. But they are not going to help us this year.
“We’ve got to find other ways right now. You’re not as strong, you’re not as tall, you’ve just got to keep working at it and finding other ways to make up for that difference by your instincts, anticipation skills improve with defense.”
That is where Beilein hopes the daily improvement he cites in practice — something spoken but not seen by outside observers — starts to manifest itself in games during the second half of the Big Ten season as Michigan sees opponents for a second time through.
“The more you see it, the more you anticipate and you’re ready for things,” Beilein said. “Defense is not reactionary. You should be anticipating things and you’ve got to see it enough to do that.”
That will come with experience, something Michigan is sorely lacking right now.