I put out a call for mailbag questions and got enough good ones for a two-parter. I'm still taking them, too: @ me (really!) on Twitter @aceanbender or email me at [email protected] if you've got a basketball question. Heck, let's see if we can make this a three-parter.
Jaaron Simmons must play better defense to see the floor. [James Coller]
My friends and I are baffled by Jaaron Simmons and his lack of PT. IIRC, we went after him. I think coaches even did an in-home visit. Is running Beilein’s offense just too difficult to pick up in a summer of practices?
While the complicated offense is certainly part of the issue, I think the main reason Simmons is on the bench is actually his play on the other end of the floor. In retrospect, John Beilein gave a revealing answer when asked about what adjustments Simmons had to make going from Ohio to Michigan. The first issue to come up wasn't the offensive scheme, but the defensive.
“Oh, boy. First of all, they’re playing man to man," said Beilein. "It’s a very good man to man at Ohio U, but some of the principles are different. He’s trying to learn some of those principles."
Michigan's top priority on defense, part a significant shift in approach over the last two seasons, is to limit opponent three-point attempts. They've been excellent at it, ranking ninth nationally in 3PA/FGA last season and 13th so far this year. The Wolverines are willing to expose their post defense in order to prevent open three-point looks; this forces opponents to try to keep up with M's offense while theoretically playing a far less efficient brand of basketball.
That approach places a major emphasis on sound off-ball defense. In his limited time on the court, Simmons hasn't impressed in that regard. He has a habit of cheating off his man for steals, leading to exactly the kind of shots Michigan doesn't want to allow. On this play, Michigan has two players taking care of OSU's Keita Bates-Diop, but Simmons gambles for a steal anyway and gives up an open three to one of their sharpshooters:
When Simmons is making plays like that, Beilein can't afford to keep him on the floor long enough for him to get settled into the offense. Eli Brooks and Zavier Simpson have both been more assertive and effective on offense of late, too, and Simpson's defense stands out. If Simmons isn't going to separate himself, Beilein doesn't have much reason to play him over the guys who'll still be in the program next year.
[Hit THE JUMP for a look at Moe Wagner's rebounding and the Big Ten outlook.]
Moe Wagner's been much better on the boards this year. [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
Wagner's Reb numbers (28.1% DR) are really up from last year and seem to hold for Tier A and B opponents. is this real or an artifact of small sample size? #mgomailbag
— Neel (@beigegalaga) December 13, 2017
I think it's real. For one, Wagner is noticeably bulkier this year, and while that hasn't helped him as a post defender—where his issues are largely technique—it's coming through in his Rebounding numbers. As mentioned, Wagner is posting a 28.1% defensive rebounding rate, which ranks 21st nationally and is way up from his 15.2% mark from last season. While those numbers can be misleading, Wagner's hold up to further scrutiny.
As a team, Michigan has been very good at preventing second chances, ranking 33rd in defensive rebounding percentage. That hasn't been a product of simply beating up on cupcakes; they've only had two below-average defensive rebounding games. Via Bart Torvik:
The two teams to even break the D-I average in OR% were LSU and North Carolina. Wagner held his own on the glass in those games, pulling down five and seven defensive boards, respectively, while opposing starting centers in those games recorded two and one offensive rebound(s), respectively. Five of LSU's nine offensive boards came from non-centers; ditto eight of UNC's ten.
Wagner isn't a great defensive rebounder; Michigan improves in that regard with Jon Teske on the floor, though that as much a credit to Teske's play as anything else. Wagner's still come a long way in a short time. There's a far more notable gap in rebounding between Duncan Robinson and Isaiah Livers, which will come up as part of a larger Robinson-Livers dicussion in the next mailbag post.
@AceAnbender Mailbag question: With the Big Ten looking down this year, and the way the schedule plays out, is it possible to think Michigan could go 11-7 or 12-6 in conference or is this team too inconsistent?
— ZJR (@zajareich) December 13, 2017
I got a couple variations on this question, and I don't think that expectation is at all unreasonable. I'm already feeling better about this team than I did when I wrote the potential season outcomes post; the point guard play has picked up, Poole/Livers/Teske are all making positive contributions, and Michigan went 2-0 against quality competition over the last week.
KenPom and Torvik both have Michigan projected to finish 10-8 in the conference right now, so I don't find it at all unreasonable to believe 11-7 or even 12-6 is within reach. Michigan State is scary and Purdue is quite good; the rest of the conference is quite beatable. That includes Michigan, of course, but I trust Beilein to get more out of his young team as the season goes on than, say, Richard Pitino at Minnesota or Pat Chambers at Penn State. The Wolverines only have to face MSU once, albeit on the road. They get a one-off with the Gophers at Crisler.
There's a lot of room behind MSU and Purdue for a team to make a run. Given the disappointing seasons thus far from Minnesota, Northwestern, and particularly Wisconsin, Michigan is as well-positioned as anyone to make a push for third in the conference with a shiny record to go with it. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the regular-season finale at Maryland determines the conference tournament three-seed.