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Dark Horse: 1/7 Advanced Stats Check-In

Is there room at the top of the Big Ten for one more?

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s note: This post was written prior to the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Sunday. I still stand by Michigan as a dark horse pick. At this point, the Buckeyes aren’t a dark horse so much as a shimmering scarlet and gray stallion named Brutus. And Michigan State is probably still one of the two best teams in the league. Probably.

Purdue and Michigan State are the two best teams in the Big Ten. Every human poll, computer ranking, and pundit with a pair of eyes says so. Both teams have top ten KenPom offenses and top ten KenPom defenses. No one else in the country can say that, and that’s true if you include all the team’s from the 2016-17 season, too.

But are those two going to run away with the league?

Probably. Maybe.

But they both play Michigan this week. And the computers say Michigan is the third best team in the conference.

John Beilein is known as an offensive mastermind, and with good reason. Three times at Michigan, he’s put together a top five offense, including last season. And although the offense has taken a step back this year, at the other end of the court it’s a different story.

Adjusting for strength of schedule, Michigan is giving up 0.941 points per possession against an average D-I team. That’s the best ever in the Beilein era, and in the top 25 nationally.

The defensive turnaround has come from a shift in style. The Wolverines used to be known as a team that played without fouling. I remember a Michigan-Ohio State game from a few years ago where the whistle didn’t blow for the first seven or eight minutes of play. It reminded me how beautiful the game of basketball can be. This year’s team, however, is the most foul-prone Beilein has ever had, No. 74 nationally in defensive free throw rate, the first time the Wolverines have finished outside the top 50 since Beilein arrived in Ann Arbor in 2007.

A willingness to foul isn’t the only difference. For years everyone has known Michigan as a poor rebounding team. At the offensive end of the court that’s still true; Michigan ranks No. 237 nationally at pulling down their own misses. But this year, Michigan is really good, No. 13 nationally, at not letting other teams pull down their own misses. That’s unprecedented.

So the defense and rebounding are as good as they’ve ever been. Coach Beilein has led past Wolverines teams to Big Ten titles and the Final Four. Are the Wolverines destined to rise up, overthrow Sparty and Purdue Pete, and claim an unexpected league crown this year? Not unless they elevate their offense to an elite level.

But Beilein is an offensive genius. If anyone can do it, he can.

Am I predicting Michigan knocks off Purdue and Michigan State this week?

I’ll give you one reason why it’s plausible and one reason why it’s not.

Why It Could Happen

The best Beilein teams have been known for taking and making a lot of threes. If you’re David trying to bring down Goliath, the college basketball equivalent of a slingshot is the three point shot. A hot night from deep is hard to stop.

Michigan takes 44% of its shots from behind the arc, good for No. 54 in the country. They’ve been in the top 50 each of the past four seasons. Every single player who sees minutes except Jon Teske is capable of shooting the long ball. So both the roster and history indicate that a steady diet of long balls is on the menu.

The three point shot has more variance than most other aspects of the game. If you’re an underdog, high variance is good. Michigan is only going to be an underdog against two teams this year. Is it difficult to imagine they turn up the knob and hoist more threes? Especially against Michigan State’s incredible 2-point defense?

This Wolverine team lacks an elite three point shooter. The only player on the team shooting over 40% is Zavier Simpson, and he’s only taken 26 so far this season. But there are six guys over 35%. Can two or three of those guys have excellent shooting nights? Absolutely.

Why It Won’t Happen

The other aspect of Michigan’s offense that is different from the norm is an astonishing lack of points from the foul line. The Wolverines only score 12.8% of their points at the line. That’s in the bottom five nationally.

Part of that is nothing new. Finesse teams like Michigan that shoot a lot of threes and pull their center out away from the basket tend to draw fewer fouls. In the Beilein era, Michigan’s offensive free throw rate has never been in the top 300 nationally. That’s incredible.

But past teams were at least good at making free throws when they got to the line. Last year Michigan made 77.9% of its free throws. This year the Wolverines are at 64.2%. That’s really, really bad.

The two seniors on the team, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are right around 90%. The rest of the team is mediocre. Charles Matthews, who has shot at least twice as many free throws as anyone else, is barely above 50%.

It’s difficult to win if you leave free points on the board. It’s difficult to close out games when there are guys on the floor who are likely to step up to the line and brick their shot. Purdue has four starters who are above 80% from the line, and Isaac Haas isn’t far behind at 78.5%. In a tight game with time running down against the Boilermakers, a small Purdue lead is a lot safer than a small Michigan one.

Conclusion

This is the best defensive team Michigan has had. If their offense can elevate to where it’s been in the past, there’s a decent chance at the end of this week that people will stop asking “Who’s the third best team in the Big Ten?” and will start asking “Could Michigan actually win the Big Ten?”

The games Tuesday against Purdue and Saturday against Michigan State are huge. I’ll be watching. You should, too.