LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Michigan hired Juwan Howard, it wasn’t much of a secret that the Wolverines would try their hand at an up-tempo, pro-style offense grounded in the pick-and-roll.
Leading up to Tuesday night’s game against top-ranked Louisville (8-0), the No. 4 Michigan men’s basketball team (7-1) had found its calling card in exactly that. Coming off wins against then-No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Gonzaga at the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in which they averaged over 75 points per game, the Wolverines’ ball-screen offense was rolling.
As for what Michigan had to show for it, senior point guard Zavier Simpson — a preseason All-Big Ten selection — entered Tuesday night leading the nation in assists. His effectiveness in both passing and finishing at the rim out of the pick-and-roll was a driving force to the Wolverines’ undefeated November.
But on Tuesday night, the Cardinals made it difficult for him to do either from the start. They hedged hard on some screens and sagged off of others, leaving Simpson uncertain of what to expect. Ultimately, Michigan’s offense struggled to adapt in its 58-43 loss.
In the Wolverines’ first seven games, Simpson shredded opposing defenses with three actions coming out of ball screens: taking it to the rim himself, dishing to the rolling or popping screener, or swinging a cross-court pass to a shooter. With an arsenal of chest passes, hook passes and bounce passes, his success rate at even the most damning angles made Michigan’s offense an efficient work of art.
For Cardinals’ coach Chris Mack, game-planning against the nation’s assists leader proved to be the most challenging aspect of facing the Wolverines.
“(Simpson) is very, very quick,” Mack said. “He’ll reject a lot of ball screens, he’ll act like he’s using it and then drive the space and kick. Teams have tried to go under, and Zavier is so clever, he just plays peek-a-boo and figures out which side you’re trying to catch him on then he goes down the lane with that Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) hook.”
Regardless of which move Simpson tried in the early going, all 6-foot-10 of Louisville center Steve Enoch stood in his way. The Cardinals began the game by hedging high on ball screens, making Simpson’s passing angles difficult.
The impact was easy to see. Michigan missed its first five shots. Soon, it was 1-of-10 from the floor. Then the struggles amounted to a 2-for-17 stretch and a double-digit deficit. By the end of the night, the Wolverines were staring at a 15-point loss, and the zero in their loss column was no longer intact.
On the other bench, all Mack could do was smile and fold his arms.
“It starts with Zavier,” Mack said. “The deeper he gets in the lane, the more it puts your off-ball defenders in a bind. How much do I help in? In the Bahamas, he’d just get in the lane and spray it out, and (junior forward Isaiah) Livers and (junior guard Eli) Brooks, they couldn’t miss. And so all we talked about was keeping him out of the lane, and then hard closeouts, hands are early. I really didn’t think they generated a whole lot of good looks.”
For the first time all season, Michigan struggled to get the ball into the paint. And for the first time all season, an offense that entered Tuesday night averaging over 80 points per game went silent.
“Our goal was to make sure that we could get those paint touches that we were comfortable with getting throughout the year thus far,” Howard said. “ … (Louisville) did a really good job of compacting the paint, keeping us out of the paint going downhill.”