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Beilein Ball, or the Lack Thereof

If a casual basketball fan has seen a Michigan basketball game in the past few years and hears John Beilein's name mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the run that almost took his West Virginia team to the Final Four with his unconventional offensive and defensive style of play. Beilein's teams were known thereafter as teams that do a few a things:

  • Attempt a huge number of three point field goals
  • Run the unusual 1-3-1 zone defense
  • Don't turn the ball over while forcing opponents into turnovers
  • Struggle rebounding the ball
  • Listening to a few national media members leading up to the NCAA Tournament discussing Michigan was frustrating, as the image of Beilein's memorable WVU squads was more fresh in the minds than the passing image of a Wolverines team that they hadn't paid any attention to for about 90% of the season. Hearing basketball "experts" mischaracterize Michigan -- especially with the false perpetuation that this team's 1-3-1 defense was a huge reason for their success (even though they didn't run it outside of last-ditch comeback attempts against Kansas and Duke) -- was somewhat understandable, after all they weren't supposed to have a reason to watch Michigan throughout the year, but hearing Michigan fans also echo the Beilein stereotype was bizarre.

    Michigan's team broke the mold that John Beilein rode to a Sweet Sixteen and an Elite bid at West Virginia, and for several reasons. Some elements of his play were the same of course; a lot of three pointers were attempted and the team took care of the ball extremely well. Michigan did do a few things much differently than West Virginia did under Beilein though, so with the help of KenPom's incredibly awesome coaching resumés, we can look at Michigan vis-a-vis three other teams: 2005 WVU (who was an overtime away from the Final Four), 2006 WVU (a Sweet Sixteen team) and 2009 Michigan (who was the first team to go to the tourney at Michigan under Beilein.

    Table (with each team's national ranking) after the jump:

    Statistical Category 2005 WVU 2006 WVU 2009 Michigan 2011 Michigan
    Adj. Tempo 279 284 279 323
    Adj. Offense 18 12 44 31
    Adj. Defense 78 53 67 34
    Field Goal Efficiency 31 32 117 42
    Opponents' FG Efficiency 234 239 158 154
    Turnover Rate 15 2 24 13
    Opponents' TO Rate 68 26 134 238
    Offensive Rebound % 275 332 282 324
    Opponents' OR % 251 314 246 65
    Three Points Attempted % 7 2 7 13
    Three Point FG % 104 169 195 115

    Michigan was better on defense than any of Beilein's best teams

    The adjusted defensive numbers were the best for any of Beilein's most successful teams at WVU and Michigan, but the biggest anomaly was the Wolverines' unprecedented ability to clean up the defensive glass. All of Beilein's best teams struggled mightily rebounding the ball on defense, but Michigan was solidly above average at preventing second chances last year. Most of the improvement came from scrapping the 1-3-1 zone in favor of a man to man defense. Instead of having a one or two guard running the baseline to double opponents in the corner while the five was standing near the free throw line, the guards played their man wherever he went, leaving the five (usually Jordan Morgan) to stay with his man in the paint. It didn't hurt that Zack Novak is a great rebounder for his size and Darius Morris was no slouch either, but the improvement on the defensive glass was largely due to the better positioning for defensive rebounds afforded by the switch to man to man defense. The improvement that the 1-3-1 gave in forcing turnovers was largely lost by switching to man to man, but the loss of forcing turnovers was the gain of keeping opponents off of the glass. The overall improvement also came from an improvement in opponents' field goal efficiency, which was slightly above the national average.

    Basically, Michigan's team deviated from the Beilein norm with much better defensive rebounding, a better job of challenging opponents' shots, and a worse ability to force turnovers. The net result was positive.


    Well yeah, they do shoot a lot of three pointers, although not as many as previous years. The three year average (2005, 2006, and 2009) was 48.4% of the field goal attempts were three point field goals, and last year Michigan shot 43% of their field goals from downtown, which is a difference of 5.4%, or the same difference from 13th (where Michigan was last year) nationally to 61st. So Michigan attempts a lot of three pointers, but not quite as many before, but they're actually pretty above average at converting them (35.3% as compared to the national average of 34.4%). It should be noted that out of the players who took a statistically significant amount of three point field goals, Stu Douglass, Zack Novak, Evan Smotrycz, Tim Hardaway, and Matt Vogrich all shot well above the national average, and Darius Morris was the only one to shoot below it and he did very badly from behind the arc.

    The real issue that fans have with high volume three point shooting is the possibility that a drought will cause a sure loss. Out of the worst three point shooting performances, Michigan dropped the worst four (by 2 against Illinois, in overtime against Kansas, by nine to UTEP, and by three to Syracuse) and went 5-5 in the worst ten. the thing is, Michigan was competitive in all of the games that it shot badly from three point range, and probably could have won three of those four games. Obviously every team that misses its three pointers will struggle more than they would have otherwise, but last year's team proved that it can win even if it can't hit threes. Michigan was outmatched by Kansas and Syracuse talent-wise and with their level of experience, they couldn't buy a three, and they still were competitive. Michigan can win games without making a majority of their threes, and it's not "feast or famine" like the common perception, or at least not more than everybody else. Plus, if a team is shooting badly early on, it's not like the coach can't say "maybe we should stop doing that for a while".

    The "hollowing out" theory used by teams like the Orlando Magic posits that a team can maximize its efficiency by taking a large volume of three point shots, which are worth 1.5 times as much as a two point shot (and since the national average of 34.4%, when multiplied by 1.5 is 51.6%, which is higher than the national average on two point attempts which is 47.8%) and are a probabilistic advantage to a two point field goal advantage. The defense overcompensates for defense on the perimeter, so the offense is also able to achieve good looks at the basket from two point range down inside and the Wolverines cashed in last year with the 24th best two point field goal % last year. The sacrifice comes with offensive rebounding, but Michigan and Beilein's other teams were still good.

    Basically, shooting a ton of threes and making at least an average amount is a perfectly viable theoretical strategy, and the premise that a team goes too hot-and-cold to win when the shots aren't falling was false for Michigan last year.

    So yeah, John Beilein changed up what he did last year on defense and saw a positive result and stuck to the formula on offense (with small tweaks: the pick-and-roll was featured way more exclusively than before, for example) and also saw a positive result. It still remains to be seen if he can contend for a conference title with such an unconventional style, but his recruiting over the past few years will finally bring the talent to Ann Arbor that gives him the opportunity for that. He's already shown that he can use this style to win in the NCAA Tournament though, with a lifetime career record of 8-6 (7-4 with major conference teams) in the Big Dance. The style has worked at Michigan so far though, and odds are that the success will continue in the future as Beilein continues to fine tune what the Wolverines do on offense and defense.