Associate head coach Phil Martelli is the most experienced basketball mind on the Michigan men’s basketball team’s coaching staff. He’s been coaching for 43 years, leading St. Joseph’s to seven NCAA Tournaments, six National Invitation Tournaments and his insights and intuition into the game have proven crucial for the Wolverines. Martelli’s wealth of knowledge has balanced out Juwan Howard’s adjustment from assistant to head coaching.
Martelli’s insights into the system and schemes he and Howard ran last year have also provided a useful potential blueprint for what this year’s Michigan team might look like. The Daily breaks down what he’s said about last year’s team, and how it might apply to this year’s:
Defense wins (conference) championships
Early in conference play last year, the Wolverines struggled on defense, especially against opposing big men attacking the paint. It was costing them games left and right. Until they figured out a solution:
“It has to be a team approach,” Martelli told The Daily on March 8. “At the beginning of the year we were leaving big guys alone and they were playing too much one on one, but now we have a team approach to guarding the low post.”
And it worked. The same team that allowed 30 points to Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu in January held Maryland’s Jalen Smith — one of the toughest matchups in the Big Ten and a projected first-round draft pick — to 18 points in March.
So what might that look like this year? With Jon Teske gone, centers Austin Davis, a senior, and Hunter Dickinson, a freshman, will surely be leading the defense in the low post. But Michigan won’t leave them there alone anymore. At the end of last season, Howard and Martelli would often send junior forward Brandon Johns Jr. or senior guard Eli Brooks in the post as reinforcements, and with both returning, they’re likely to continue doing so. Expect to see that strategy play out when it’s Dickinson in at center as he adjusts to the pace of the collegiate game.
“It’s about trust”
Howard’s first recruiting class brought in a lot of flashy recruits, including Dickinson and two other ESPN Top-100 players in guard Zeb Jackson and forward Terrance Williams. But Michigan’s offense struggled last year relying on talent alone; even with All-Conference caliber players in Zavier Simpson and senior forward Isaiah Livers, the offense struggled to find consistency.
So instead of relying on consistency, they relied on each other: on who was shooting well, on who was making plays.
“The first statement to them in July was that under this system they were gonna learn to share the game. And that’s what we do. We share the game,” Martelli said in February. “When we got in trouble, the ball was being dribbled too much, and there wasn’t enough trust.”
“There’s no ‘wait a second, I was a big deal the other night.’ Everybody’s job is appreciated and everybody’s job is important. To take from Belichick: Do your job.”
That could be an adjustment for recruits who had journalists hanging onto their every word for months and who were the major players at their high schools and AAU programs. But it’s worth nothing that these guys are already making that change. When the class’s two flashiest projected recruits — Josh Christopher and Isaiah Todd — decided to go elsewhere, these were the guys that stuck around, confident in the team they still wanted to build. These were the guys that were ready to commit to this idea of a team.
So expect a lot of passing and motion. Michigan’s offense lived off its ball screens last year, on its ability to get the ball into the hands of the player who had the best shot. Last year that was Zavier Simpson’s job; this year, it’s likely to fall into the hands of Brooks or graduate transfer Mike Smith, who filled a Simpson-like point guard role at Columbia last year.
“I love playing my offense through a point guard, and I mean this in a respectful way, a ball-dominant point guard, because he can put his teammates in position to make the next play,” Martelli said last fall. “The unselfishness in this group would be right up my alley.”
One thing’s for sure: that ball screen-reliant offensive structure isn’t going anywhere, even without Simpson.
Shots, shots, shots (everybody)
The reason that screen passing has been and will continue to be so important for the Wolverines is Howard’s emphasis on shooting — “if you have a good shot, take it” became almost his mantra from day one of last season.
“These teams will be encouraged to shoot,” Martelli said last fall. “I think playing with pace, trying to get up-and-down the floor. You have to score; teams place a lot of value on scoring the ball. If you can comfortably get to 70 points a game, 72 points a game in college basketball, you’re gonna be in very good shape to win that game if that’s your target number — 72, 75. You have to shoot the ball.”
With Livers aiming to find his scoring stride again this year after a junior season teasing efficiency but plagued by nagging injuries, and with Johns and Brooks looking increasingly confident with their shots as well, Michigan could be incredibly dynamic — and dangerous — offensively. And that’s not even factoring in the freshmen’s considerable scoring potential. Williams averaged 17.9 points per game in his senior season at Gonzaga College High School, and Jackson averaged a solid 11.3 points per game for Montverde Academy, one of the best teams in the country; Howard has only added more scoring potential to last year’s team.
At the end of the day, though, the Big Ten basketball season, even a shortened one, is a grind. Martelli – and this year’s team – are well aware of that.
“You know what you have to do. You have to put on all your pads and go out there and slam around.”