1/2/2018 – Michigan 75, Iowa 68 – 12-3, 2-1 Big Ten
emerging [Marc-Gregor Campredon]
There are two* kinds of John Beilein basketball teams: flamethrowers from the drop and teams that start in disarray before assembling themselves, Voltron-like, somewhere in the middle of the season.
These latter teams are sometimes flamethrowers—see last year's edition, which was a top 10 team for the second half of the season and was one Walton pull-up three away from winning three different Sweet Sixteen games in one year. Sometimes they are mere crème brulee torches, like Beilein's first tourney team. No matter the intensity, there's almost always a "click" moment for floundering Beilein teams.
It's too early to tell if Michigan's fit the buckle in the clip or if it will in fact happen this season, but surely there are suggestions that it has. Like this:
That is Zavier Simpson's line against Iowa. It looks like a Bonafide Offensive Contributor's Line. This is new. It's getting less new. If you poke recent box scores with a stick you get a picture of a point guard who's emerging. Simpson had a total of five points in Michigan's first four games against Kenpom top 100 opponents; his assist to TO ratio was 5:6. In his most recent four games against non-bodybag opponents he's got 45 points, 12 assists, and four turnovers. And seven steals against just four fouls.
This is a thing you feel gradually, and then there's three seconds on the shot clock and Simpson has an open three he passes up and you're like WHY DIDN'T YOU SHOOT THAT AIGH and... oh. Huh. Instinct now says an open Simpson three is a very good idea, what with his... uh... 46% shooting.
That can't be right.
And yet it is. No amount of staring at the numbers makes them waver into a reasonable improvement from Simpson's 5-of-19-on-shots-that-kind-of-look-like-your-grandma-is-taking-them freshman season. It still says 46%, which is nonsense. It'll still be nonsense if and when Simpson regresses back towards reality, but it's very Beilein nonsense. Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman hit 29% as a freshman, and since he's been a 37% shooter on over 250 attempts. This is a thing.
A functional point guard and Isaiah Livers whispering that he, too, can hit threes and Michigan might be on to something. That something is likely to be a seven-seed because Michigan has only three upcoming games against certain tourney teams and they're the #2 and #3 teams on Kenpom. The rest of the conference has been infected with Rutgersitis that verges on terminal. Maui was bad; so was a nonconference schedule with no fewer than five RPI boat anchors.
If the scheduling is a persistent Beilein annoyance it's more than made up for by the annual flourishing of some guy the recruiting industry thought was a future plumber. If the whole defense-and-rebounding thing is a long term reality, Michigan might be in business for the next few years. Especially once Brent Hibbits rips off the warmups and starts canning no-look threes. You heard it here first.
*[There is a third kind that loses an NBA first round pick and another prime contributor to injury and florps its way to the finish line however it can, but those are filed under Acts of God.]
rebounding? a thing? [Campredon]
About that rebounding. I'm still a wee bit skeptical since Michigan has often entered Big Ten play with a shiny Kenpom DREB number only to finish 11th in the league, but that shiny number has never been as shiny as #12 in the country, where they currently sit. That's tops in the conference, albeit against (mostly) the #298 nonconference schedule.
Still... this feels more sustainable than many falsely positive DREB rates at this juncture. Michigan is getting after it as a team, with every starter over 10% in Dreb Rate and Wagner hauling down a whopping 27%. That'll come down but it's a huge upgrade from last year's 15. Wagner can't do much about his rim-protection deficiencies at this point but his NBA experience last offseason has seemingly emphasized to him that he needs to round out his box scores.
John Teske, meanwhile, is a huge upgrade on Mark Donnal. Donnal had an 11% DREB rate last year; Teske is at 22%. Zavier Simpson has an 11% DREB rate. At Clemson Donnal is currently sporting a 6.3% DREB rate. It's a new world at C.
Add in Charles Matthews, the best rebounding wing—but not point guard—Michigan's had in a minute, and Michigan has a decent shot at finishing in the top third of the Big Ten. Which is new.
Moving forward with Livers. Ace has been yelling about Isaiah Livers for most of the year and it's probably time to go with him as the starter over Duncan Robinson, whose defensive deficiencies are much better hidden when the opposition throws some backups on the court. Livers is a much better rebounder and on-ball defender, and I think the big efficiency gaps for both Livers and Teske are more about Robinson getting shoehorned into a role that doesn't suit him:
There's undoubtedly some randomness in there since Livers isn't driving Michigan's offensive success with his 108 ORTG. Wagner and Robinson together are bad news on D and Michigan should strive to keep that combo off the floor. The most logical way to do that is to flip Livers and Robinson.
I would also accept "play Mathews at the four some," since against certain matchups he'd be fine. Michigan's best two defensive possessions against Tyler Cook were probably the two times Matthews got switched onto him. But Ace hates that idea even if he is a Jordan Poole stan.
Moving some usage around. Beilein's best teams barely have anyone in the "major contributors" second of Kenpom that denotes a high-usage (24-28%) player. (A "go-to-guy" is virtually unheard of.) Last year's #4 offense had zero major contributors. Ditto the #3 2014 team. It took NPOY-level Trey Burke to bust through the Beilein usage ceiling.
Michigan does not have a Naismith candidate this year so it would behoove them to slide some of the usage currently going to Matthews and Wagner to MAAR and Simpson. This may be in process with Simpson; see above. That would give their offense some upward mobility and is their best path towards being a team that is legitimately a top 15 or top 20 outfit.