As wins go, the Michigan men’s basketball team’s Wednesday squeaker over Minnesota was an underwhelming one. The Golden Gophers entered Crisler Center at 0-6 in the Big Ten, having already suffered three conference losses by double-digit margins. Nonetheless, the Wolverines failed to put Minnesota away until the game’s final minutes and struggled to shoot the basketball all night, finishing just shy of 37 percent from the field.
After that game, and again after Michigan’s 81-68 win at Nebraska on Saturday, Michigan coach John Beilein and the centerpieces of the Wolverines’ backcourt-centric offense offered the same explanation for their periodic struggles.
In both games, Michigan’s options on ball screens — one of its offensive staples — were limited in ways they hadn’t been at any point this season. In an attack heavily reliant on the 3-pointer, any impediment to the Wolverines’ perimeter ball screens presents a major roadblock.
“I knew they were going to be challenging for us because of their overall quickness,” Beilein said after the win against Minnesota. “They defended (the ball screen) differently than anybody has defended it all year long. I’m not going to put it out there, but we’ve got to have a different strategy or be better at what we do.”
Ever cryptic, Beilein did little more to walk the average basketball mind through the mechanics of what Nebraska and Minnesota did on the defensive end. Some aspects of the defensive efforts, however, were apparent. The Golden Gophers employed an atypically nimble set of low-post defenders on ball-screen switches, stifling the room Michigan’s shooters typically enjoy. Nebraska, meanwhile, made sure not to leave the post-screen trailer with any space at all.
“Going in, we knew that they guarded the ball screen a certain way — they didn’t really allow us to throw it back to what we call the ‘bulldog’ guy for the open jumper,” said junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. of the Cornhuskers.
While Nebraska’s consistent perimeter pressure closed doors for open jump shots from range, the Wolverines took advantage once they found room on the other side of the wall. Walton, passing through height on the perimeter, made sure the ball-screen pressure translated to more room on the inside, particularly for junior forward Mark Donnal on the pick-and-roll.
“Mark was setting great screens all night and rolling as fast as possible,” Walton said. “He made my job a lot easier. At that point, all I had to do was give him the ball and let him do what he does.”
Walton’s six total assists helped Donnal to a 14-point effort, his third double-digit scoring performance in seven Big Ten games. Since his 26-point outburst against Illinois on Jan. 2, Donnal is averaging 12 points and has been markedly more involved in the Wolverines’ offense.
“As Derrick said, we knew they were going to play a certain way on ball screens,” Donnal said, “so there were some open passes that he was able to make (that) I converted on once I could.”
The Wolverines certainly did better capitalizing in the interior against Nebraska, but the added perimeter pressure prevented redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson from getting the type of looks he has grown accustomed to from 3-point range.
Robinson shot just 3-for-10 from beyond the arc during the Minnesota game, but Beilein saw a silver lining in his long-range struggles. Tailed nonstop around the perimeter, Robinson’s off-ball movement has taken a major leap, as has his ability to finish at the rim.
“What he’s realizing now is that people are going to play him a certain way, and his movement without the ball is going to be really important,” Beilein said Saturday after watching him make three 2-point shots. “He’s learning — all the video, all the synergy — that people are going to sit on him different ways, and he’s got to do more than stand and wait for people to get him open.”