On Saturday night, Michigan and Wisconsin went down to the wire in front of a roaring crowd in Ann Arbor and ESPN's College Gameday. It was one of the tightest games in Big Ten play so far and showed a lot about the Badgers when they were able to pull out the gutsy win on the road. The Badgers did end up winning, but what factored into their ability to pull off the big win?
Of course, no player or specific matchup decides a game, but one matchup in particular played a large role in Saturday's game and it was the way the Wolverines decided to defend Frank Kaminsky. This season, Kaminsky has not only performed well enough to be in consideration for Big Ten Player of the Year, but he has received a great deal of consideration for National Player of the Year as well. As such, Michigan would need to organize a gameplan in an attempt to slow down Kaminsky when the two teams faced off.
Michigan's gameplan used a variety of different schemes including alternating zone defenses, double teams, and rotating several players off of Kaminsky. However, instead of looking at everything Michigan used, I wanted to focus in on one particular matchup against Kaminsky that I found particularly intriguing. This was the use of Michigan wing Zak Irvin on Frank Kaminsky for extended stretches.
On paper, putting 6'6" Irvin on 7'0" Kaminsky looks like a pretty big mismatch. Not only is Kaminsky 4 inches taller than Irvin, but he weighs an additional 27 lbs and is significantly better in every category indicative of interior play including rebounding rate and blocking rate. Plus, Kaminsky has better post moves including the ability to back down opponents to create space.
However, on paper matchups are not always indicative of what happens on the court. See, Kaminsky - as noted earlier - presents a unique defensive challenge. Not only does he have the size of an elite big man, but he also can handle the ball and do damage on the perimeter. If you try to use man defense and your big man to stop Kaminsky on the perimeter, you risk Kaminsky simply dribbling around your big man and either getting a wide open look close to the basket or passing to a wide open teammate when inevitably, another defender tries to move over to stop him.
The solution (in theory) is using a guard or wing on Kaminsky on the perimeter. This way, Kaminsky won't have the foot speed to beat the defender inside. You can't eliminate his perimeter game with this matchup, but you take the inventive away from him of handling the ball and trying to make plays on the perimeter. Just take a look at Kaminsky's statline from the Michigan game. It was the first time since December 13th that Kaminsky attempted no 3PT shots and only the second time all season that he has not had any attempts from long range. He also had a few bad turnovers when he was unable to get around Irvin.
Another bonus for Michigan is that this also helps minimize some of the biggest issues with Irvin's defense, which are Irvin's foot speed and inability to stay in front of opponents. Irvin may not be the fastest guy out there or have the best foot speed, but he is still a 6'6" guy with a solid bit of speed. He is going to be able to keep Kaminsky in front of him on the vast majority of plays. In theory, this is almost an ingenious design to not only try and corral an opponent's best player, but also minimize one of the defensive weaknesses of your own team.
After Saturday night's game, Bo Ryan and Irvin talked about the matchup. Ryan stated that "Frank mean[t] a lot" to the team and called him "one of the best players in the country." Irvin stated that the team had gameplanned for Kaminsky and were looking to use a "cross matchup' against the big man.
Of course, there is also a downside to matching up a player like Irvin on Kaminsky. The biggest issue occurs when Kaminsky is able to get inside. Sure, Kaminsky can't beat Irvin with his first step or ball handling, but he can absolutely back down Irvin right back to the hoop. It's not impossible for Irvin to hold his ground or contest a shot from Kaminsky, but the difficulty level is going to be through the roof. In about 99% of situations, if Kaminsky puts his back to Irvin, it's going to be nearly impossible to Irvin to do anything other than slow him down.
What this means is that by putting Irvin on Kaminsky, you have now opened yourself up to really easy looks if Kaminsky gets anywhere near the paint. Plus, Irvin is going to be forced to try and keep his hands high to prevent essentially a wide open look for Kaminsky. You can see it here:
By doing so, that gives Kaminsky easy passing lanes to his teammates where they can now get easy looks. Kaminsky may not have racked up assists on Saturday night, but he made great passes that fueled the offense and got people open on the perimeter or into position to find the open guy.
The key part here is how Michigan responded when Kaminsky got inside. As noted above, there are huge advantages to putting a guy like Irvin on Kaminsky, but there is also one big issue. In order to make this defense work, Michigan had to rotate someone over as soon as Kaminsky got anywhere near the paint. If Michigan didn't double team Kaminsky when he got inside or someone switch on a big man, he would get really easy looks considering his size as you can see from how Irvin tried to defend Kaminsky above.
Over the course of the night, this largely went back and forth. Sometimes, Michigan would force Kaminsky into a bad look and other times, he simply backed Irvin or another teammate down. It really was an exciting matchup and one that was indicative of just how close this game was on the court. If Kaminsky underwhelms against Irvin or these double teams, maybe Michigan wins. It really shows how great of a player Kamisnky has been this season.
The game was hardly decided by this one matchup, but it certainly went a long way toward keeping Michigan in the game and making other players outside of Kaminsky make plays for much of the night. For the future, it will be interesting to see if other teams try to replicate this plan against Kaminsky - Ohio State with Sam Thompson comes to mind - and whether Wisconsin comes up with a plan to respond.
Last year, Indiana got a lot of credit for coming up with a unique defensive scheme to guard last year's Big Ten Player of the Year in Nik Stauskas and it looks like teams are doing the same with this year's potential Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky.