Walk before you run: Wolverines trying to rediscover once-lethal fast break

Sunday, February 17, 2019 - 6:49pm

Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers was impressed with the Michigan men's basketball team's transition offense against Maryland on Saturday.

Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers was impressed with the Michigan men's basketball team's transition offense against Maryland on Saturday. Buy this photo
Alexandria Pompei/Daily

The Michigan men’s basketball team takes its time on offense.

The Wolverines have finished higher than 285th in offensive tempo just twice in 12 seasons under John Beilein. Low turnover rates depress their tempo somewhat, but this has never been a team that seeks to fly past you.

Instead, Michigan is more like a viper waiting to strike its unsuspecting prey. The Wolverines ranked among the top five percent of teams in transition efficiency in each of the last three seasons, per UM Hoops.

This season?

“Sometimes, fast break, we shouldn’t even do it,” said Michigan coach John Beilein after a 59-57 win over Minnesota on Jan. 22. “Because we’re jogging up the court. We gotta sprint. We don’t run.”

The Wolverines scored 19 fast break points on Jan. 10 against Illinois, but that was heavily aided by the Fighting Illini’s pressure defense and accelerated tempo. Leading into Saturday’s game against Maryland, Michigan hadn’t scored more than 10 since. Its normally lethal fast break has been, at best, average this year, and often much worse. And Beilein’s let them know it.

“They see the analytics on it, that we’re a very middling offense in transition,” Beilein said Saturday. “We showed them stats from other years, and I said, ‘We’re doing the exact same thing.’ ... We didn’t change our game plan, so this one’s not on the coaching staff right now. This is on you.”

It’s not as if this game plan — Beilein’s only rules are “get wide, make sure we fill some lanes” — reinvents the wheel, either. Michigan has excelled in transition for years by taking elementary concepts and executing them at a high level.

But while that has done wonders for the Wolverines in the past, that might be part of the problem this year. Simplicity and ease are not the same, but the difference between them is deceptive, and that difference may have deceived Beilein — who regrets that he didn’t drill his team more on core concepts during the summer.

“I shouldn’t have taken that for granted that people understand how to get wide when we really didn’t,” he said. “That’s on me.”

Thus, the past two weeks have been something of a crash course in transition offense, according to junior guard Zavier Simpson. On Saturday, Simpson reiterated that the keys to finding a transition groove are simple.

“Finding the open lanes, just to get hit and (Beilein has) been on our wings about running,” Simpson said. “I just tell my wings just to run and I’ll find you.”

If this understanding comes around, Michigan — with a premier distributor in Simpson, an ace shooter in sophomore guard Jordan Poole, and athletic mismatches in redshirt junior guard Charles Matthews, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis and sophomore forward Isaiah Livers — has the tools to be one of Beilein’s better transition offenses.

The seeds of that were on display against the Terrapins. After a blocked shot, Brazdeikis led the break and found Poole, who circled under the rim and hit Simpson for a wide-open, catch-and-shoot 3-pointer for the game’s first points. Brazdeikis notched a transition triple of his own a minute later, and Matthews scored four points off fast break passes from Simpson and Brazdeikis in a 14-2 start for the Wolverines.

Maryland’s offense has ball security issues, ranking second to last in Big Ten games in turnover rate. Michigan took advantage, scoring 10 of its 27 first-half points on the fast break thanks to 13 Terrapin giveaways. Maryland threatened in the second half as the Wolverines slowed down, but a smooth transition take by Poole off Livers’ outlet, followed by a Simpson pull-up three, kept the Terrapins at bay.

All told, Michigan finished with its most fast-break points (14) in over a month.

“We were playing at a clip that was incredible,” Beilein said. “We were getting stops and we were running. ... (In the second half) we stopped creating turnovers, so now we had to dial up plays and get more into a halfcourt thing.”

Brazdeikis and Livers, in particular, could hold the key to Michigan’s fast-break Ferrari. Both play most of their minutes at the ‘4’ position but have the talent and athleticism to hold their own elsewhere. This includes transition, where their versatility can discombobulate a defense unsure how to match up with them.

“It was sometimes where I was even leading the break and I was like, ‘Wow, ” Livers said. … That’s great for us. Especially Iggy — Iggy had like two assists on transition. He loves when four-men push the ball because it’s really hard to guard because the other four-man’s not gonna guard the four in transition, so it’s kind of liking having a lot of guards out there. It felt different.”

Added Beilein: “It’s very hard to guard a bust out four. Somebody’s gonna take him, it means now … the point guard is being guarded by a four in space and that’s usually good.”

On Saturday, the Wolverines weren’t quite the deadly transition offense they’ve been in years past. But they looked closer than at any point this season — and with Michigan having broken 70 points only once in its last nine games, and 80 only once since Dec. 8, an improved fast break might be just what it needs to get its offense back on track.