LOS ANGELES, Calif. — There was a time when opponents had a definite formula for stopping the Michigan men’s basketball team.
Back in January, against Purdue and Nebraska, and the Wolverines were stymied by defenses that switched on every ball screen. Michigan would give the ball to a guard, who would, in turn, look decidedly confused.
That isn’t the case anymore. Thursday, the Wolverines dissected Texas A&M when it switched on ball screens. Tyler Davis, the Aggies’ star center, was blown past and exposed by Michigan’s guards throughout the matchup, and his size and reach wasn’t enough to make up for the speed discrepancy.
It started less than two minutes in. Davis switched onto freshman guard Jordan Poole on the perimeter. Poole faked a drive with the jab step, Davis took a step back to play the drive and Poole drilled a 3-pointer over the big man’s head.
It was a bad omen for things to come.
“Take what the defense gives you,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “You can’t try to force the issue. If they’re giving you the three, you’ve got to take the three. If they’re playing you close, drive be ‘em, draw two and kick. You’ve just got to take what the defense gives you.”
It’s the second part of that equation that threw the Wolverines for a loop in January. When they lost to Purdue, it was still only a one-point loss. But the offensive success Michigan did have was almost entirely on threes, and more specifically, threes from guards shooting over Boilermakers center Isaac Haas.
But the Wolverines struggled to drive by the big man and get good shots, and against Nebraska they couldn’t do much of anything at all offensively.
After that loss to the Cornhuskers, a 20-point drubbing, Michigan coach John Beilein and his players set to work to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.
It’s those early struggles that have led the Wolverines to this point, where they relish facing switching defenses.
“When we played Nebraska, we weren’t used to teams switching like that, one through five,” said assistant coach Deandre Haynes, who works with Michigan’s guards. “So we ended up changing our whole offense up a little bit. And, you know, it’s a thing that we have now where we try to switch it around to where you don’t know what kind of things we’re gonna do. If we’re gonna set a screen or we’re gonna do other things with screens. I can’t give you the formuals just yet, but it’s a lot of different things that we do now that we’ve been trying to mix up against the defense.”
Haynes’ role in Michigan’s improvement in this regard is especially important. You may have noticed throughout the year that the Wolverines’ guards have become adept at driving into the lane and hitting what seems like a circus hook shot over top of an opposing post player.
Often times the announcers go nuts and the crowd gets excited, because you don’t normally see shots like that. Unless you’re Michigan.
The Wolverines work on it daily. They call them three-o’clock and nine-o’clock layups, named for the position of the player’s arm when he releases the ball. Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson started working on them this offseason, and Haynes has made it a part of all the guards’ daily routine.
So it isn’t a surprise anymore when the shot finds the bottom of the net.
“I started working on it with (Simpson), and all of our guards here — Muhammad, who mastered it, Duncan (Robinson) does a really good job with it, Eli (Brooks) — we’re just steady working on it every day,” Haynes said. “Every day we work on three-o’clock finishes, scoops, nine-o’clock finishes, floaters. Every day. And that’s one of those things when we’re out on that floor, when we shoot it, we know it’s gonna have a chance to go in, because we rep it every day.”
Added Simpson: “It’s definitely unique, but all of us work on it. We work on our game day-in and day-out, and when you work on your game, good things are gonna come, and things you work on are gonna have an opportunity to present themselves. And we just take advantage by scoring the ball and having a unique layup.”
So there are many reasons why Michigan now has success against switching defenses. It’s a more aggressive mindset, it’s the experience of having seen it before and it’s the hard work put in to hit unique layups.
On Saturday, in the Elite Eight, Florida State will likely be the next team to play the Wolverines aggressively and switch all ball screens. The Seminoles pride themselves on “junkyard” defense, named for their aggressiveness and willingness to do the little things.
But Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton is aware of Michigan’s improvement against that type of defense, and Friday in his press conference, he flashed a bit of concern.
“I’m not really sure that we can be as aggressive with them defensively because they make such great decisions with the ball,” Hamilton said. “They backcut, they space the floor, and I’m sure we’re just going to have to figure out how to make whatever adjustments we have to in order to be effective in a game that we feel is going to be tremendously challenging for us.”