Michigan having trouble cutting through opposing zones

Anna Schulte/Daily
Junior Guard Zack Novack (0) plays against Minnesota at Crisler Arena on Jan. 22, 2011. Minnesota won the game 69-64. Buy this photo

Daily Sports Writer
Published January 25, 2011

In the first half of the Michigan men’s basketball team’s game against No. 15 Minnesota on Saturday, the Wolverines scored just four points in the paint.

That statistic itself wasn’t terribly eye-popping. Michigan has four shooters on the court at all times — four players that hang on the perimeter while their lonely fifth man often gets smothered underneath the basket. And if they can’t get penetration into the key, they’re all happy to fire shots from beyond the arc.

But Michigan coach John Beilein knows that four points in the paint are too few and the 19 first-half 3-point shots the Wolverines took against the Golden Gophers were too many. He’s probably aware that even a team of five Glen Rices — Michigan’s all-time leader in 3-point field goal percentage — wouldn’t be able to successfully run such a one-dimensional offense.

What was particularly interesting, though, was how Minnesota turned the Wolverines (1-6 Big Ten, 11-9 overall) from a shoot-first offense to a shooting-only offense.

Minnesota coach Tubby Smith deployed a 2-3 zone for most of the game, which apparently caught Beilein off guard because Michigan looked as though it had no idea how to attack it. And instead of attacking it, the Wolverines sat back and put up the most 3-point attempts they have all season (35).

“They went to a zone — people hadn’t zoned us for a month,” Beilein said in his weekly radio show on Monday. “It gave us a few issues before halftime. We closed the half very poorly — let them back in it a little bit — and then we opened the (second) half poorly and got down.”

Typically, zone defenses are accustomed to crowding the lane so opposing forwards can’t get open underneath. Teams usually stick to man-to-man against Michigan because zones consistently leave men open around the perimeter. And against a team of shooters like the Wolverines, opponents are wary about allowing them to fire threes all game.

But Smith wasn’t concerned. With a long team that features elite big men like Trevor Mbakwe, Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson — at times all on the court at once — Minnesota was able to stretch its zone out to the perimeter and still clog up the lane, creating a menacing wall of defense for sophomore point guard Darius Morris to deal with.

“They made 12 (3-pointers) — they made 12 too many,” Smith said. “We challenged some shots well, but they’re most effective when they’re penetrating a pitching. But because the zone didn’t really allow them to beat us off the dribble and find people open, the zone was very effective.”

The plan worked to perfection, much like how Syracuse’s zone worked against Michigan at the Legend’s Classic in November, when the Wolverines shot at a woeful 8-for-32 clip from 3-point territory. Both the Golden Gophers and the Orange were able to close off drives and still stretch the zone enough to get a hand in the shooters' faces.

About five minutes into the second half, Novak put up a 3-pointer from the corner, only to get stuffed by the high-flying Mbakwe, who retreated from the low post to make the play.

“With that length, it’s similar to a Syracuse zone that you just have trouble when you get it into spots and you turn and there’s a 7-footer standing there,” Beilein said after the game. “Those guys are flying at you.”

Normally, Michigan won't have to worry about facing a zone with length like Minnesota or Syracuse because most teams just aren’t big enough to run it and still cover shooters on the perimeter. But Beilein probably still hopes he doesn’t see a zone again for a while.

And he probably won't — not until he treks to Minneapolis in late February to face Smith’s crew again.