For the Michigan men’s basketball team, quite a bit has changed in 15 days.
It went to in-state rival Michigan State and won by double digits, clung to a narrow one-point victory over Maryland and got its doors blown off at Nebraska in its worst performance of the season. While the offense has hit a bit of a funk, the defense has sustained itself as the backbone of the team.
The Wolverines are a different team than they were when they lost by a point at home to No. 3 Purdue 15 days ago.
Thursday, we’ll find out how different.
Thursday, we’ll find out if 15 days were enough to correct the errors that became apparent in the narrow defeat to the Boilermakers. In preparation, The Daily reviewed the tape from that game, noting three plays that defined the struggles — and arguably turned the tide — in the one-point loss:
1) The Play: Purdue 0, Michigan 0. 19:51 left in the first half. Purdue ball.
Center Isaac Haas stands at the top of the key with the ball and an arsenal of shooters on each side — each of whom essentially requires being face guarded at all times. Purdue runs an on-ball screen with Haas clipping Duncan Robinson after a dribble handoff to try to free guard Dakota Mathias, and guard PJ Thompson screens sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson off the ball to free Carsen Edwards. Robinson and Simpson recover perfectly, fighting through the screens to stifle the motion. The pass to the wing deflects off the leg of Vincent Edwards, who has to chase back to half court to recover. Michigan defends to a T for the first 15 seconds of the clock.
But here’s the problem with defending Purdue’s shooting ability: They force you to defend for all 30 seconds, and any defensive lapse will be punished swiftly.
Mathias sets a screen off the ball, but doesn’t make contact with any defender. It doesn’t matter. Matthews, expecting to switch onto the cutter in the lane, loses Mathias off the ball. He and Robinson pick up the same Purdue player who cuts into the lane. Mathias swishes a warmup 3-pointer, and Purdue is off. Before the ball falls through the twine, Matthews throws his arms up in frustration.
There were several instances — largely in the first half — of simple miscommunications that resulted in Purdue 3-pointers. That may seem easily correctable, but those miscommunications or failed rotations will only be augmented in a hostile environment. The Boilermakers shoot 44 percent from three, trailing only Wofford and William and Mary nationally. They have five players who shoot better from beyond the arc than Michigan’s best shooter. After the game, freshman forward Isaiah Livers said he thought the team was overly concerned about Haas in the post, to the detriment of the 3-point defense. This cannot happen the second time around, or Purdue will simply bludgeon them from deep.
“You’ve got to just give multiple efforts on the defensive end,” said redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews on Wednesday afternoon. “You can’t just come in there and take away the lane and leave shooters all around. You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to take the shooters away and leave our big on a 7-foot-3 (guy).’ ”
Much of guarding Purdue requires a degree of chaos. You have to chase and fight through screens, hedge on shooters, collapse on the big, then spring back to the shooters. But controlling that chaos may be the key to containing the high-octane offense. Minizimizing such perimeter breakdowns — as easy as that may be to write, rather than execute — could be the biggest key to winning the game.
2) The Play: Purdue 5, Michigan 2. 18:16 left in the first half. Michigan ball.
The Wolverines bring the ball up the court effectively amid some light pressure, and get into one of their basic sets — some on-ball and off-ball movement. Simpson gets the ball at the top of the key and takes a screen from Wagner on the right wing, getting the switch he wants with the 7-foot-3 Haas. This is a matchup Michigan theoretically wants, and will likely get again, assuming Purdue comes out switching every screen.
But just because it wants this matchup does not mean it is consistently capable of exploiting it. Simpson settles back into isolation and realizes he has no viable path to the hoop. Haas, meagerly respecting Simpson’s jumper, lags three steps from Simpson. Simpson dishes the ball away, only to get it right back in the same position with 10 seconds on the shot clock. Trying to make something happen, he aimlessly dribbles into the lane, where Haas is easily able to recover. Wagner gets the ball, attacks the lane and is met at the rim by a camping Haas for an easy block.
Herein lies the problem with this matchup. With a score-first guard like Trey Burke or Derrick Walton Jr. the Wolverines would be chomping at the bit to get Haas switched onto a guard. Either could simply pull up from 3-point range, or pump fake and explode past the slower Haas. But neither Simpson nor senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is naturally comfortable generating consistent offense in the isolation. In a vacuum, them attempting to do so is not a recipe for this team’s success.
“If we have Trey Burke right now — an experienced player at the point — that’s just got the entire package, it’s a little bit different,” Beilein said. “When they switched on (Mitch) McGary and McGary is big, rebounding inside. We said, ‘Alright Trey, you shoot it, Mitch, you rebound it.’ That was our solution.”
But as Beilein told reporters Wednesday, they have little choice but to try to attack those mismatches off the switch anyway. He noted that it merely comes down to guards making plays on bigger defenders, rather than a grand schematic change.
3) The Play: Purdue 69, Michigan 69. 1:16 left in the game. Michigan ball.
Simpson started the possession with heavy pressure near halfcourt. With the game tied at 69 and just over a minute left, this out-of-timeout play represented the closest thing to a “make or break” possession. Yet, as Simpson is being pressured there is little, if any, off-ball movement. He picks up his dribble, and only Abdur-Rahkman cuts toward him to get the ball, catching it nearly 30 feet from the basket with the shot clock dwindled down to 15.
It seems unlikely Beilein told his team, “Let the clock trickle, and get Abdur-Rahkman and Wagner in a pick-and-roll,” but that was the result.
Finally, with eight seconds on the shot clock the senior guard dribbles into a Wagner pick, once again earning the switch. If Abdur-Rahkman was either confident enough to exploit Haas or get the ball to Wagner on the guard, a go-ahead bucket would seem imminent. Instead, a hesistant Abdur-Rahkman stutters right, trying to finesse himself free on the seven-foot defender. The result? An errant step-back, fadeaway three pointer that clangs the back right portion of the rim.
This play was just one of several poorly executed possessions down the stretch of the 70-69 loss. Michigan failed to score in the final 2:54 of this game, and while some can point to the referees as blame for the loss, a lack of late-game execution played a major role. For neither Wagner or Matthews to get a touch on this possession (Wagner didn’t touch the ball in the final three minutes) represents a negligence on the Wolverines’ part.
And that was not a result of Wagner being smothered defensively, either.
“Give Zavier Simpson credit, he almost beat us. My man didn’t beat us — Moe Wagner,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. He destroyed us last year. I wasn’t going to watch that again. I’ve got all the respect in the world for (Simpson), but Moe Wagner is a stud.”
That perspective, from the opposing coach, about sums it up.
For a team that lacks dominant perimeter scoring, it must position Wagner for success on its most important possessions. He is the team’s most gifted offensive player, and the advantage he presents with his ability to stretch the perimeter is only amplified by Purdue’s plodding big men. If this game is close late, he must have the ball in his hands — or at the very least, be directly involved in the play.