Michigan, Michigan State and the mechanics of attacking a switch

Friday, March 8, 2019 - 6:05pm

The Wolverines will try to feed junior center Jon Teske if the Spartans switch ball-screens.

The Wolverines will try to feed junior center Jon Teske if the Spartans switch ball-screens. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

The scene at Crisler Center on Friday was remarkably low-key. John Beilein, normally on time to the minute, strolled into his press conference 10 minutes late, joking that it should have been held on Thursday instead, so everyone could take Friday off. Isaiah Livers pulled up a chair and sat off to the side while Beilein finished up. He stayed sitting for the next 15 or so minutes as, across the room, Jordan Poole posted up at a roundtable.

You wouldn’t have known the stakes were so high if not for the questions themselves.

Two weeks ago, Michigan State walked into Crisler Center and threw a wrench into the Michigan’s plan, and its season. After hedging ball-screens for the better part of a decade, Tom Izzo told his guys to switch. The Wolverines weren’t ready for it — something Beilein admitted after the game and something reiterated by the coach and his players alike since.

It’s not that Michigan can’t score when teams switch. It’s that Michigan was completely unready to see the Spartans change their coverage like that, the first time an opponent has caught the Wolverines off guard in such a way all year.

“Literally, exactly,” Livers said when this was posed to him. “They came in, I had come off a ball-screen and they switched it. So I was like — I was kinda caught off-guard.”

The second chance comes Saturday, after Minnesota resuscitated both teams’ chance at a Big Ten title by beating Purdue on Tuesday. Beat Michigan State and Michigan will at least share the crown.

To hear the Wolverines talk about attacking the Spartans’ ball-screen defense is to hear a team that has, in the last two weeks, thought critically and deeply about just that. As he sat at that table, Poole walked any reporter lucky enough to be within earshot step-by-step through attacking a switch.

“First of all, seeing the mismatch (junior center) Jon (Teske) has. If he has a guard down there, if there’s a help defender in the back where it’ll be a tough layup for him, trying to get him the ball,” Poole said. “But if not, you just make a play. Usually, I feel like it’s a mismatch if you have the ‘5’-man on you. Or a ‘4.’ … But just making a play or trying to get an easy bucket.

“I, personally, really like to attack the mismatch. Not necessarily (at) all times, but attack the mismatch where somebody’s gonna have to be in a rotation or help or drive and have to just throw it up, lob to Jon. You gotta kinda see what happens during the game.”

The universal conclusion from Michigan’s self-conducted autopsy: Teske didn’t get the ball enough down low. Livers estimated that, despite Michigan State switching point guard Cassius Winston, who stands a full foot shorter than Teske, onto the center all game long, the Wolverines managed to attack it just four, maybe five, times.

But actually getting the ball entered into the post is a game unto itself.

“Usually they can front Jon, right?” Poole said. “So if you front Jon, Jon is trying to get position where he’s able to catch the ball. But there’s always a backside defender, right? But Jon’s also trying to create enough space where he can have a layup opportunity, rather than catch the ball and pass. He still wants to be in the position to score the ball.

“So then while he’s trying to create space and you throw the ball, you can kinda overthrow it. … You kinda gotta make a perfect pass and put it in a situation where he can score rather than just getting him the ball.”

Within this game, there’s another factor at play. Switching ball-screens on Michigan, inherently, forces its offense to be something it’s not — one that attacks mismatches one-on-one instead of creating space via ball-screens.

Beilein wants his players to go ahead and attack — “We want to shoot stepback threes the whole time,” he said facetiously Friday — but there’s a balance to be struck. On Saturday, that balance will tilt towards Teske.

“It’s tempting (to go one-on-one),” Livers told The Daily. “It’s so tempting. This is where we have to keep our emotions out of it and our ego out of it. We have to focus on winning. We have to get our big guy the ball.”