Basketball in March is an adrenaline-based exercise. After a regular season of scheduled, staggered games against the same rotation of conference opponents, teams must prepare for opponents they haven’t seen on — at most — four or five days’ notice. During the Big Ten Tournament, that window is shortened to less than 24 hours, and on the second end of a weekend during the NCAA Tournament, it’s 48.
That’s where Michigan comes in.
The Wolverines, of late, have spent college basketball’s most-hectic month overachieving. Two years in a row now, they’ve won four games in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament, despite underdog status and, yes, despite a near plane crash in 2017.
Two years ago, as a seven-seed, they upset Louisville and made the Sweet 16. Last year, Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater against Houston propelled them to the national title game. Asked about the ingredients to those runs on Wednesday, John Beilein brushed aside the notion of any institutional reason behind it.
“Luck is a really big ingredient to have right now,” Beilein said.“You gotta go in there and sometimes the ref has to be ready to make a foul call and, ‘Ah, nah, it’s not really a foul call.’ … Everybody asks us, ‘What’s the secret to our success the last two years?’ I have no idea.”
Ask around though, and opposing coaches have some ideas.
“Their offense was the hardest to lock into,” said Matt Gordon, an assistant coach at Loyola-Chicago, Michigan’s Final Four opponent last year. “(Beilein) had so many counters.”
Once coaching staffs know who they’re playing next, preparation, more often than not, starts instantly. Film is downloaded and digested that night — two or three games per coach, with an emphasis on opponents that play a similar style to their own teams. A preliminary scouting report develops in time for practice the next day.
Two years ago, then-Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood decided at 2 a.m. after Selection Sunday to change up the Cowboys’ defensive coverage and switch every ball-screen — an attempt to neutralize Moritz Wagner on pick-and-pops.
Each team has its base actions offensively. Those, after some time in the film room, are easy enough to identify and teach. Underwood points to action the Wolverines run on pin-down screens — every time a defender turns his back to one, Michigan’s players cut the other way, towards the basket.
Where things get complex is in the sheer number of actions in Beilein’s offense, and the number of counters to those actions. You can pick up tendencies. You can’t plan for everything.
Oklahoma State held Wagner to six points in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. Michigan scored 92 points and won.
“We knew (point guard Derrick) Walton would not drive the ball,” Underwood said. ”So we played really soft. And made him shoot over a contested hand. To his credit, he made a lot of those shots.
“And so, off that pin-down screen, they started bringing (wing Zak) Irvin and (shooting guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-)Rahkman off those screens and tight-cutting them really hard. And that’s a counter. But we were willing to live with a jump shot rather than a layup.”
The Wolverines’ identity has shifted since that game two years ago. Teams don’t have to prepare for Wagner anymore. That’s no small matter.
Three coaches on three separate staffs all brought up the challenge of guarding Wagner on pick-and-pops as the crux of solving Michigan’s offensive riddle in prior years. Oklahoma State switched and got hurt by everyone else. Montana, in a first-round game last season, trapped ball-screens and, thanks in part to foul trouble, played a good defensive game. The Ramblers switched and Wagner not only scored 24 points, but grabbed six offensive rebounds against smaller guards.
“The big key was not giving (wing) Duncan (Robinson) and Wagner pick and pop shots, pick and pop 3s,” said Chris Cobb, an assistant coach for the Grizzlies who scouted Michigan last year. “And so a lot of the week was spent on rotations and keeping them from getting in rhythm at the 3-point line. I think we were gonna concede a couple maybe open shots around the rim to make sure that those guys never got in rhythm.”
Wagner is gone and junior center Jon Teske doesn’t present the same defensive issue for opposing teams on the pick-and-pop. But the actions that make Michigan so hard to guard are still in place, and opponents need to spend time figuring out how to crack a defense ranked third in adjusted efficiency.
Montana felt it did the former well last season ahead of a first-round matchup with Michigan. In the game, it held the Wolverines to all of 61 points and jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the opening minutes.
It wouldn’t matter. The Grizzlies managed a measly 47.
“I don’t think they do one thing that makes it different as far as defense, but I think their discipline, for 60 or 70 possessions, is as good as I’ve ever seen,” Cobb said. “From breakdowns to where you had to work for everything. They were relentless.”
Scheme is identifiable on film. Physicality and discipline — you don’t see that until you’re in it, and by then, it’s too late.
“I’ve coached college basketball for 10 years,” Cobb said. “That was the most intense defensive effort I’ve ever seen from an opposing team.”
“… It sounds very elementary. It’s incredibly difficult. But yeah, they stay in front of you. They don’t wilt. They don’t wilt, is what I would say. They contest every shot. You watch them, you watch Virginia, there’s a different — them and Virginia are different.”
So, maybe there’s a little more than luck behind Michigan’s success.