It’s year one under coach Juwan Howard, and the question on everyone’s mind seems to be what on Earth is this new team going to look like?
Will it be characterized by deliberate possessions on offense with complex schemes that only a few of basketball’s elite may understand, or will it be more up-tempo, emphasizing the 3-point shot? Will the team mostly run man-to-man defensive coverage or will it play a zone? For crying out loud, who’s even going to be starting?
In the weeks leading up to the season, one figure on Michigan’s staff may provide some early answers: associate coach Phil Martelli.
Having spent the last 24 years as the head coach at St. Joseph’s, a mid-major program in Philadelphia, Martelli has seen it all. He coached one of only 25 teams to finish the regular season undefeated, with his 2003-04 squad, and has led many players to the next level.
While it’s still too early to tell, Martelli’s wealth of experience will likely add a boon to Howard’s rookie campaign as a coach. In addition to contributing sage wisdom, as a man whose name is synonymous with veteran coaching ability, Martelli may have a hand in designing this season’s offense and defense.
To figure out what that may look like, The Daily broke down some old St. Joe’s game footage between the Hawks and Saint Louis in 2018 because, well, it was one of the only ones available on YouTube. It’s not a game of any particular significance, just a regular season game in which St. Joe’s lost, 68-57.
The analysis will include what Martelli could bring to both sides of the ball this season as well as how his system would have potentially worked with Michigan’s 2018-19 roster.
We’ll start with offense, because, while defense is great, it surely is not going to keep you hooked on this article. And Martelli agrees. On Friday, speaking to The Daily, Martelli dropped this nugget.
“Coaches might scream that you don’t deserve to coach when I make this next statement,” Martelli said, “but that old statement of, ‘Defense wins championships,’ I’m not dead-sold on that. I’ve never seen a championship won 6-4. You have to score.”
Right he is. And one of the primary ways he did that at St. Joe’s was through staggered ball screen processions, frequent ball movement and a ball-dominant point guard.
Martelli did not always have the most size or strength with his players, but the guards he did recruit could often times flat-out play. This is evident in his ‘03 squad that ran with four guards on the floor most of the time.
Here, let’s look at a passing play that led to a pick-and-roll play with an easy basket. Multiple passes along the perimeter and plenty of off-ball movement led to space in the middle of the lane where forward Lorenzo Edwards set a pick before quickly rolling to the basket where he caught the pass for the easy score.
As the style of play in college basketball has changed over the years, the pick-and-roll has become an instrumental tool in any offense due to its hard-to-guard nature and versatility. Nobody understands that better than Phil Martelli and, so it seems, Juwan Howard.
“The offense that we’re running now is really from Juwan’s and (assistant coach) Howard Eisley’s background,” Martelli said. “Conceptually, though, it’s what you’re saying. The ball screen is a big part. The ball screen is a big part of the NBA, big part of college basketball. Hard to guard. The double away action that you speak about is hard to guard.”
Martelli is surely excited at the thought of coaching a player like senior Zavier Simpson — a ball-dominant, tenacious guard — who would surely be a fixture of St. Joe’s scheme.
An additional aspect of the offense that Martelli has witnessed in his brief time with the Wolverines but failed to fully implement himself is the after-timeout (ATO) play. ATO plays have become a crucial part of the college and professional game, and with all the old NBA talent now at the helm of the program, seem to be queued up for a big release for the Wolverines.
On the defensive side of the ball, Martelli maintains that his schemes were often dictated by the skill level and size of his players. So he knows exactly what he’d do if he were in charge of implementing the defense at Michigan.
“I would build my defense, man-to-man,” Martelli said. “As we’re looking at some multiple defenses, I would be a man-to-man team with a kind-of zone to take the other team out of rhythm.”
And Martelli has and will have the chance to defend these schemes, seeing as all of the coaches draw on their individual experiences in order to pitch Howard on how to best run the team.
One aspect of St. Joes’ defense that may make its way into Crisler Center this season is the act of trapping the baseline. A prominent feature of Martelli’s defense, trapping the baseline took the Saint Louis offense out of rhythm and forced it into making riskier passes. Take a look here.
In this play, once the ball is passed to the big man, the Hawks’ guard comes down to trap the ball. This forced the Billikens’ ball-handler to dribble to the outside and pass to the open man who then missed a deep three.
So if you see the Wolverines trapping the baseline this season, you know who to thank.
How Martelli’s System Could Improve
When seeing how last year’s St. Joe’s team compares to last year’s Michigan team, the differences are glaring and largely explain the disparity in success.
For starters, the Hawks lacked skill at the point guard position. To be fair, most teams trail the Wolverines in this regard with Simpson emerging as one of the nation’s best. But once the film is pulled up, the evidence is damning.
Here, take a look at a play where St. Joe’s point guard Jared Bynum drives to the basket. Notice his shot selection and angle towards the basket when taking his shot. Then, watch Simpson attempt the same, but notice how his approach differs.
Clearly outmatched and off-balance, Bynum’s shot had a ghost of a chance to connect. Simpson, on the other hand, knowingly outsized, has mastered the hook shot — a greater shot percentage if placed in the same situation as Bynum.
While, yes, this is just a series of cherry-picked shots, last year’s stats tell the whole story. Simpson led Bynum in nearly all advanced statistics including win shares and player efficiency rating. While Bynum edged out Simpson in points per game, Simpson dominated in nearly every aspect of the offense particularly in assists where he averaged 6.6 per game.
One additional difference between Martelli’s teams and Michigan currently is the lack of size.
Here, I’ll let the play speak for itself, but just imagine you’re a lifelong Hawks fan, you’re watching your players compete down low and just try not to get frustrated.
Pretty hard, right?
The player at the ‘5’ here, Lorenzo Edwards, is only 6-foot-7. Jon Teske, on the other hand, is 7-foot-1. It’s hard to imagine the Billikens get as many chances with a player a full four inches taller crashing the glass on every play.
And just for fun, here’s another play of an attempted alley-oop play where the intended recipient, guard Charlie Brown Jr., whiffs on the attempt.
Replace Brown with junior forward Isaiah Livers or last year’s standout Ignas Brazdeikis or even Teske and tell me the play doesn’t go down a little differently.
It’s just harder to get the athleticism seen night-in and night-out on Michigan’s roster at mid-major programs. Not to say there isn’t talent at this level, but a more athletic duo completes that play. And no one knows this better than Martelli.
So this season, when Martelli is sitting on the bench for the first time in 24 years instead of standing and screaming on the sidelines, it’s important to acknowledge what contributions he will be making to this team. And when he says, “If I had Michigan’s players at St. Joe’s, I’d still be the coach at St. Joe’s,” just know he’s probably telling the truth.