The Michigan men’s basketball team is looking a little bit different these days. More specifically, it’s looking quicker.
The Wolverines are playing with an increased tempo, averaging six more possessions per 40 minutes thus far compared to 2022-23. Each of those possessions are about a second shorter, on average, allowing them to get more shots up over the course of a full game — and giving them more chances to score.
While those metrics only include data from a miniscule three-game sample size, Michigan’s faster tempo is not by chance alone. It springs from a concerted effort that the Wolverines are making to get down the court quickly and get the ball out in transition.
“It was a decision that we made in the summer,” Michigan associate head coach Phil Martelli said Nov. 7. “… We are dedicated to being a transition team. Because — don’t tell anybody — one of our Achilles’ heels could be our outside shooting. … So in order to score enough points, we had to be quick down the floor.”
Perimeter shooting hasn’t quite been the Wolverines’ Achilles’ heel, as they’re shooting a red-hot 41 percent from behind the arc thus far. But that hasn’t stopped them from remaining dedicated to the transition offense. Led by speedy sophomore guard Dug McDaniel, Michigan rarely hesitates to push the tempo, immediately darting down the court after grabbing a rebound or a loose ball.
Notably, that’s helped the Wolverines vastly improve their fast-break offense. Last season they averaged 6.12 points off fast breaks per game, ranking a meager 316th in the country. Now, they’re averaging 11.33 fast-break points per game. That improvement also helps with the perimeter shooting that Martelli worried about, allowing Michigan to find wide-open looks before the defense can fully get set.
And for the Wolverines, it all connects back to their versatility.
“Our versatility allows us to get out, run, take shots,” redshirt sophomore forward Will Tschetter said Nov. 10. “If a guy is sprinting his butt off down to the corner, and he’s wide open, we practice that. If you’ve got a transition, walk-in three, shoot it.”
Because of that versatility, it’s not just the smaller guys — who you’d expect to get down the court first — scoring in transition. Seven of Michigan’s eight rotation players have scored at least once on the fast break, with senior forward Terrance Williams II leading the way with 11 transition points.
And when everyone is getting down the court quickly, it starts to create matchup nightmares for defenders sprinting to get back.
“When you have all those guys scrambling out and getting out on offense in transition, it’s really hard for people to match up with us,” freshman guard George Washington III said Nov. 3. “Especially in a split second.”
Washington’s point is pretty easy to visualize. Imagine an undersized guard who managed to get back attempting to stop 6-foot-7 Williams, running full speed downhill. Most times, that leads to an easy bucket for Michigan, just as it anticipated when prioritizing transition offense over the summer.
There are some drawbacks, however, of trying to play faster. The Wolverines are averaging 11 turnovers per game thus far, up slightly from the 10.5 mark they averaged last year. While those turnovers may partially stem from working out early-season kinks, plenty of them have come on long passes in transition or just from losing control when trying to get out on offense quickly.
But given that Michigan is scoring an extra five points per game this season on the fast break alone — of nearly 20 more points per game total — the pros of a faster tempo currently outweigh the cons. Even when the Wolverines don’t score on the fast break, that tempo makes it harder to defend them.
“(Pushing the tempo) is important to establish the flow of the game, and get the defense on their heels,” graduate guard Nimari Burnett said Monday. “Everything just opens up behind them.”
So even if someone loses the ball trying to go coast-to-coast in an instant or a quick outlet pass goes awry, don’t expect Michigan to stop pushing the tempo of the game. The Wolverines want to play quick, and they believe they have the pieces to do it.
It’s a different look for Michigan. So far, it’s a better one too.