Tale of the tape: Michigan's offense comes alive in Piscataway

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 - 7:19pm

Junior point guard Zavier Simpson .

Junior point guard Zavier Simpson . Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

Rutgers’ plan to upset the Michigan men’s basketball team Tuesday appeared straightforward: funnel the ball inside and scrap for close buckets, while packing the lane on defense and forcing the Wolverines to hit enough jumpers to beat them.

Offensively, the strategy was quite successful, as big men Eugene Omoruyi, Myles Johnson and Shaquille Doorson combined for 37 points on 16-for-30 shooting.

Defensively, it was another story. Michigan nailed 47 percent of its 3-pointers and scored 1.17 points per possession to hold off the Scarlet Knights, 77-66.

Despite not resulting in a win for the home team, the gameplan was a logical one — and a few days ago, it might have even worked. Friday night, Iowa overwhelmed the Wolverines in the paint, and on the other end, sat back in a zone to dare them to shoot. Michigan obliged, but hit just eight of 33 treys in a 15-point loss.

What changed?

Knocking down open shots was one part of the equation, but getting them in the first place was just as important. The Daily took to the tape to look at what went into the Wolverines’ best offensive performance in nearly a month.

Ignas Brazdeikis gets going:

Without knowing why this difference exists, any statistic like this should be taken with a few grains of salt. But it’s still too massive to ignore.

Anyway, here’s the freshman forward’s first shot on Tuesday:

Brazdeikis finished with 23 points and a career-high five 3-pointers. Quite the coincidence.

Here, he’s matched up with Omoruyi — his former high school teammate — on the left wing. Its a simple read for Brazdeikis as junior center Jon Teske comes down to set a pick. Omoruyi goes underneath the screen, deciding hes better off taking his chances with a pull-up three instead of his 240-pound frame sticking with the nimbler Brazdeikis on the perimeter, as well as wanting to take away Teske rolling to the hoop.

“They definitely didn’t prepare for my 3-point shot, I feel like,” Brazdeikis said. They didn’t close out as hard, and they left me open.

Big mistake.

To be fair, it wasn’t as if there was a right answer. Throughout the game, Brazdeikis sat outside looking to dance to the rim, waiting for the Scarlet Knight bigs to join him. More often than not, they couldn’t keep up with the rhythm.

Pick-and-pop becomes deadly:

Last season, the pick-and-pop with Moritz Wagner was one of Michigan’s offensive staples. Against Rutgers, the Wolverines utilized it to great effect.

Brazdeikis generally plays the ‘4’ in Michigan’s offense, and his combination of slashing and outside shooting makes him a matchup nightmare, especially against a mostly paint-bound Scarlet Knights squad. Nowhere was this mismatch more evident than in the ball screen game.

“What Rutgers does, and this is very common, is they’re gonna choose to play with two big guys,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “And it’s very difficult for them to switch at the four position.”

As a result, Brazdeikis ended up with two warmup jumpers midway through the second half.

On both of these plays, Omoruyi isn’t quite quick enough, or in position to be able to close out effectively. Here’s what happened when he tried:

“I thought we played well in the second half, but you can’t get yourself in a hole against a team ranked in the top five, said Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell. “Every time we made a mistake on the defensive end, they made us pay.”

This was one of those mistakes, as Geo Baker does himself no favors by completely giving up on the play — though that may have stemmed from a miscommunication between him and Omoruyi, whose closeout on Brazdeikis was far too late. But the main point of the previous clip is to show the dilemma that the Scarlet Knights faced in defending this action.

Junior Zavier Simpson — who finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists — has been elite at making plays when getting downhill, either from finding the open man off the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop or with his signature hook shot. Rutgers decided that taking away Simpson’s penetration was the smartest strategy in defending the ball screen, giving up multiple wide-open looks in the process. That’s the luxury of having one of the country’s most unique players; a barely 6-foot-tall point guard who’s also an elite finisher.

Charles Matthews blows the game open:

For about five minutes, the redshirt junior wing was the best player on the court.

On this play, he takes advantage of some poor scouting. Matthews prefers to drive towards the baseline off the side pick-and-roll, but Montez Mathis forgets this momentarily as Matthews shakes him with a slight hesitation to the right. No Scarlet Knight is close to being in position to cut off his drive.

Matthews’ jumper has come and gone this season, but he knocked down two free throws after drawing a foul on a baseline inbounds play. On Michigan’s next possession, he stepped into, and swished, a confident 3-pointer.

By this time, Matthews’ teammates have sensed he’s feeling it, and clear entirely out of the way for him to attempt one of his favorite shots, a 14-foot turnaround that’s as unblockable as it is inconsistent. This time, it drops in.

Matthews scored just two points the rest of the way, but his dominating stretch turned out to be critical. After the Wolverines took a 17-point lead nine minutes into the first half, Rutgers outscored them 55-50.

Michigan finds success in transition:

“Sometimes, fast break, we shouldn’t even do it,” Beilein said after Michigan beat Minnesota on Jan. 22. “Because we’re jogging up the court. We gotta sprint. We don’t run. … You end up getting scores in the 50s and 60s if you’re not willing to bust your butt to get up the court.”

Against the Scarlet Knights, the Wolverines not only sprinted in transition, but showed strong positioning and patience when they were unable to get a bucket immediately.

Often, it started with — who else? — Simpson. Off a long rebound, he’s decisive but steady in pushing the ball up the court, his penetration drawing Omoruyi to help under the basket. The product is an easy corner trey, as Simpson fires the bounce pass to Brazdeikis at exactly the right time.

Before the rebound even lands in Simpson’s hands, sophomore guard Jordan Poole is off and running. Poole’s recognition puts him behind the entire Rutgers defense, and Simpson hits him in stride.

This isn’t a fast break, but it’s perhaps Michigan’s best possession of the game. Its roots stem from transition, where Brazdeikis steams up the middle in anticipation of a breakout. Meanwhile, Poole spaces the play well near the left wing.

While the Scarlet Knights get back to defend the fast break, part of successful transition offense is the ability to know when to run and when to pull out and set up the halfcourt attack. Simpson sees he doesn’t have an immediate play and doesn’t force the issue, and from here, dribble-drive penetration, a smart cut by Matthews and unselfish passing leads to three points.

More good spacing here, as Simpson runs in his lane and forces Baker to stay on him. Brazdeikis fires a pass to Matthews, who simply beats everyone down the court. The pass is inch-perfect, right over Baker’s fingertips, but without Simpson sprinting out wide, Baker would be able to play free safety and come up with a likely steal.

Much like Simpson’s trey, this isn’t exactly a fast-break. But Simpson pushes the ball hard up the court and forces Rutgers to surge downcourt ahead of him. The Scarlet Knights are rightly occupied with stopping Simpson, but fail to notice the Wolverines’ best shooter as the trailer.

Notice a common denominator in all of these plays yet?

“Fourteen, seven and seven. That’s incredible,” Beilein said after the game, reciting Simpson’s stat line. “We’ve been really blessed. It’s probably why we’ve had any success we’ve had is that we have really good point guards. ... The point guards make it go.”